House committee OKs later school start dates

Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 10, 2006 at 9:21 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE - A deluge of constituent e-mail favoring a late August start for the school year prompted members of a House committee to throw aside their usual support for local control and approve the legislation Tuesday.
Some lawmakers also said the bill (HB 177) would solve a problem the Legislature itself created by setting up a competition among schools to win prestige, avoid penalties and earn extra cash by getting high marks on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.
School districts have moved starting dates to middle and early August to get more time to prepare students for the test, said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach.
Gelber and Sherry Sturner, a parent from North Miami Beach who founded the Save Our Summers group, cited August heat and hurricanes among reasons for delaying the starting date to no earlier than a week before Labor Day, once the traditional end of summer vacation.
"We're putting kids into classrooms in the hottest and most dangerous part of the year," Gelber told the Prekindergarten-12 Education Committee.
Gelber's bill was approved 10-1 with most members saying they were responding to constituent pressure. some of it very close to home. Rep. Ken Gottlieb, D-Miramar, said he was convinced after polling his two children.
"They told me they really liked Uncle Dan's bill," Gottlieb said. "The local thing to do is listen to the local people and support Uncle Dan's bill."
Even Gov. Jeb Bush backs Uncle Dan's bill.
"I like it because, first of all, I'm tired of the FCAT being an excuse for everything from the common cold to the state of schools, and it's just not right," Bush said. "I think bringing some certainly across the state is a good thing."
The bill next goes to the Education Appropriations Committee, chaired by Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka. He is also vice chairman of the Prekindergarten-12 Committee and voted for the bill but warned it may languish in the appropriations panel so other options can be considered.
Gelber said other possibilities could range from two weeks before Labor Day to a week after. He said he wants to come up with a date that would not harm dual enrollment programs, which let high school students take community college courses, and accommodate districts that want to end the first semester before the annual winter break.
The legislation drew opposition from representatives of statewide associations representing school boards, superintendents and administrators, who argued that calendars should be set locally.
"We make no apologies for trying to prepare kids as well as we can to succeed on that test," said Ruth Melton, director of legislative relations for the Florida School Boards Association. "The bottom line is this is a local issue."
Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said he was sticking with that principle while casting the lone dissenting vote, but Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said it's a hot issue that local school officials apparently want to avoid.
Although flooded with e-mail from parents and others in favor of the bill, Bogdanoff said she has heard nothing from local school board members.
"For once they've said 'OK, Legislature, you do the dirty work,"' she said.

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