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Teachers can expect few encouraging words

By JON EAST

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 26, 2001


Schools across Florida have opened their doors again. Five-year-olds are peeled from their mothers' arms, invited to enter a world of cut and paste, story hours and ABCs. Seventeen-year-olds are loaded with books, senior privileges and college visits. In classrooms throughout the nation's fourth most populous state, the ritual return to school inspires a sense of opportunity and hope.

And then there is Phil Handy.

The education revolution that was begun the day Jeb Bush was elected governor is now 57 days into its second wave. Two years after Bush made private school vouchers his top priority and established a system of rewarding and punishing public schools based on the results of one standardized test, the governor has merged the $12.8-billion operations of 2,450 schools, 28 community colleges and 11 universities. And he has picked a Winter Park financier and political fundraiser to run them.

Handy, a 57-year-old politico known for his anti-government diatribes, his successful Eight is Enough term-limits campaign and his high-profile fight against a teacher union initiative called "Reclaim Education's Share," is chairman of the new seven-member state Board of Education. He calls schools "delivery systems," condemns them largely as failures and repeatedly speaks of the "historic opportunity to make dramatic change." The chip on his shoulder seems to cover, at a minimum: obstinate teacher unions, lazy college professors, school boards that misuse their funds, nonsensical rules, and the "myth" that education is not adequately financed.

"Boy, I sure hope this board some day will address this myth that we don't have enough money," Handy said on Tuesday, as the board reviewed and recommended a budget for 2002-03. ". . . Every time we say we have less, we perpetuate a myth. It's not less."

Handy's remarks were oddly timed, given that the university system did in fact receive $12-million less this year, and that its per-student allocation, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has dropped from $14,530 to $13,677 in the past two years. In a larger sense, though, his words help illustrate the remarkable disconnection between some of the tenets of the Bush education reform and the realities in Florida classrooms today.

Take the money as one example. Over the past two decades, the Legislature has reduced the number of daily instructional periods for middle and high schools, increased the number of students in each classroom, cut back summer course offerings, eliminated foreign language and band in elementary schools, reduced the number of exploratory courses that university students can take, increased teaching loads for professors, and decreased the number of guidance counselors, teacher aides and curriculum specialists who provide direct support to students. By every available objective measure, public schools and universities in Florida are poorly funded. Among states, Florida is ranked 43rd in pupil-teacher ratio, 38th in per-student spending, 34th in starting teacher pay, and 49th in per-capita spending on education.

Handy and the Education Board, though, are following a different script. As board member Charles Garcia, a Boca Raton investment banker, put it last week: "We have to have a culture of turning things upside down."

As evidence of that strategy, consider the agenda for the first six months: approve the state's first consolidated education budget, reorganize the state Department of Education, completely rewrite the 5,000-page School Code, revise the A+

Plan school grading system, hire three chancellors. Handy and Jim Horne, an accountant and former state senator who is the board's new secretary of education, say they want above all to bring competition and sound business practices to public education (though the need to invest has so far applied only to the $400,000 salary package the board originally proposed for Horne).

There is a key problem with this rush for change, though. To turn things upside down, you first have to know which way is right-side up.

Putting that nagging "myth" about education spending aside, Handy and the board have already shown some genuine confusion about the system they are reshaping. Handy repeatedly questioned whether college students are paying enough in tuition, accusing university officials of hiding costs meant to be factored into the equation. But the policy that universities follow, which is to set tuition at 25 percent of the cost of instruction, is a formula the Legislature established and annually monitors. Horne accused school districts of hoarding state money intended to pay for building new schools. But school construction is a lengthy process that is often slowed by state education rules themselves. Board member Carolyn Roberts, a former regent, complained on Tuesday about not having a current count of all students who are enrolled in K-12 this year. But, at the time, not all school districts had even begun classes.

The board has met only twice so far, so it is natural that its members would not be well acclimated to all the parts of their job. What is most worrisome is that they don't seem inclined to wait. Much in the fashion they were created, when Bush and former House Speaker John Thrasher scribbled the idea on a cocktail napkin, board members are poised to act first and ask questions later.

Worse, the board, like Bush, seems driven by distrust and contempt. The underlying premise of this reform is that educators won't do their jobs unless they are coerced into it.

That distrust is what causes the state to rely on one standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, to drive its K-12 reform agenda -- to give bonuses to some schools, to give vouchers to students at failing schools, to potentially fire principals and teachers and close some schools. Though there are many other meaningful gauges of student learning, including classroom grades, the state doesn't trust any measurement that involves the judgment of teachers. That contempt is why, when Bush in recent months appointed 150 people to university boards and the education board, he chose only a handful of educators. The top two leaders in Florida education are an investor and an accountant.

The push for accountability is fine. The hostility is not.

The true measure of education, as Handy has said, is whether students learn. If he and the governor could get beyond their economic ideology, they might find that many public schools and universities succeed immensely in that regard (by Bush's own assessment standards, not a single school in Florida was awarded an F this year). They might also discover that the reasons some students don't learn are quite complex and have little to do with high-level governance. A new Board of Education over universities, colleges and public schools may bring better coordination and cooperation between the various levels of schooling, but the answers to their educational concerns will inevitably be closer to home.

Each classroom has to be served by a competent, eager teacher, and that objective is growing more difficult as the pay loses pace with other fields and fewer students choose teaching as a career. Each teacher also needs adequate support -- from parents who reinforce the need for homework and earnest effort, from administrators who help with increasing disciplinary demands and from aides who free the teacher of more menial tasks and help tutor students with special needs. All three forms of support have been diminished in recent years.

The real world in Florida classrooms today is that a kindergarten teacher with no aide may be asked to guide 29 students, three of whom have serious problems in their homes and continually misbehave in class, four of whom cannot correctly hold a pencil and write their names, one of whom may physically strike her, and one of whom may not even know the English language. As teachers open their doors to a new year of learning, they are not looking for a "seamless delivery system." They're looking for an aide, for a lifeline, for someone in charge to give them an encouraging word.

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