Making the grade

Published: Saturday, February 1, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 11:12 p.m.

Education Week magazine has issued its annual report card for each state . While Florida won't be sent to bed without supper, the grades are not good enough to qualify for ice cream for dessert, either.

The best score on Florida's report card is an A for "standards and accountability." In his second-term inauguration speech, Gov. Jeb Bush declared, "We have built a school system that is accountable to our students and parents."

During his first year in office, the Legislature passed a sweeping reform that required letter grades for schools based on student performance on FCAT.

But accountability is not the only ingredient to an effective school system. It also takes good teachers. Florida earned a C-minus in "improving teacher quality."

An old joke goes that if a person puts one hand in icy cold water and the other hand in steaming hot water, then that person is at a comfortable temperature, on average. That's how it is with teaching quality in Florida.

On one hand, about one-third of Florida secondary teachers (33 percent) did not major in the subject they teach. This can be a particular problem at the high school level, where expertise in course content is crucial to young people preparing for college.

On the other hand, Florida boasts 3,489 National Board certified teachers, the second-highest number of any state.

These teachers have met demanding qualifications that includes hundreds of hours of paperwork, videotaping and self-evaluation, a process that may take three years to complete.

Of course, part of the motivation to achieve national certification is financial.

Before passage of the state's Excellent Teaching Program, there were only 21 nationally certified teachers in Florida.

This program guarantees qualifying teachers a 10 percent raise, which translates to about $3,500 a year for a midcareer teacher; educators who agree to mentor other teachers through the certification process are eligible for an additional 10 percent increase.

This provides a huge incentive in a state where starting salaries average only $27,387 per year.

Florida's worst grade on the report card was in "adequacy of resources," getting only a D-plus, down from a C-minus last year.

After adjusting for regional cost differences, Florida's funding was only 86.6 percent of the national average. Fewer than 1 percent of Florida districts had per-pupil expenditures at or above the U.S. average. Florida schools are clearly underfunded.

Accountability of a public school system is a worthy goal, and striving to improve teacher quality is a step in the right direction.

But without adequate resources for every public school, Florida will never earn good grades in education.

And then how can our students earn good grades, and compete with students from other states? In Florida's case, education reform must be preceded by tax reform.

This week, the Coalition to Reduce Class Size - the group that pushed through the constitutional amendment mandating smaller classes - recommended that Bush and the Legislature better fund education by closing some of the hundreds of special interest exemptions in the state sales tax and postponing some corporate tax cuts.

Will Bush and the Legislature have the courage to do what's right for public education?

It is time for the state leaders to realize that accountability is not the only issue that matters when it comes to public education.

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