GOP says 'major changes' in education

The "stars are aligned" for schools overhaul, says Jeb Bush ally.

Published: Monday, January 25, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 24, 2010 at 11:44 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE - This year could bring some of the most substantive changes to Florida schools in more than a decade.

The GOP-controlled Legislature - heeding critics that the state needs to graduate students better prepared to compete for jobs - is poised to toughen graduation standards, link student performance to teacher pay and make it easier to fire teachers.

"We are talking major changes, and not all of them will be welcome," said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, and the head of the Senate committee that oversees public schools. "But the overarching goal is to how to wake our kids up and make them better performers, let them receive the information they need and exit the building and immediately get a job and compete with the rest of the world."

If the proposals are passed in the upcoming legislative session, which starts March 2, it would mark the biggest shift since 1999 when then-Gov. Jeb Bush put in a system that rewarded and penalized schools based on results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.

The high-stakes test is given in all grades from third to 11th, and students are required to take it in order to graduate.

"I do think the stars are aligned and there will be some major education reforms that will take place," said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida's Future, the think-tank that Bush started.

The blueprint for the education overhaul comes from a lengthy report released earlier this month by the Florida Council of 100 and the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which insisted that the future's of the state economy "hangs in the balance" unless major changes are made from pre-school classrooms to college campuses. The group came up with a list of 100 recommendations it wants state leaders to consider.

The report said that within 10 years, 90 percent of new jobs in Florida will require education beyond a high school degree. But currently only 76 percent of Florida students even graduate from high school.

Furthermore, only 16 percent earn college degrees in fields such as science, engineering and computers, where workers will be most needed.

"Florida faces an emerging talent gap - an urgent shortage of a resource as basic as food, more valuable than gold and in higher global demand than oil," the report said.

The challenge is enacting reforms while also grappling with a potential $3 billion budget shortfall. That means most of the changes will likely involve policy, not major investments of resources.

Lawmakers will focus on boosting high school graduation requirements such as requiring that future high school students pass geometry, Algebra II and biology in order to graduate.

Legislators will also consider replacing parts of the FCAT in high school to end of the year exams that would test students on a specific subject.

Republican legislators said last week they want to put a constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot that would freeze class size limits at their current levels.

And GOP legislators also plan to wade into a divisive debate over whether to link student performance to teacher pay and whether to make it easier to fire some teachers.

Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, argued that school districts already have opportunities to fire teachers during their first three years on the job.

He said that schools need to make sure that the process used to evaluate teachers is fair and includes more than just how their students fared on a standardized test.

Rep. Martin Kiar, D-Davie, who sits on the main education committee in the House, worries that any changes to the state's teacher tenure laws could allow principals with a "vendetta" to target a teacher they don't like.

Detert said that she knows that many times legislators embrace education reforms and it results in little changes back in the classroom. The former school board member insists this year it will be different.

"Every time we roll out the new plan we all get a coffee cup and a T-shirt and nothing changes," said Detert. "This time it will change dramatically."

Even though a wide range of state political, business and education leaders embraced the report, some of its ideas were dead on arrival, or at least deep frozen.

For example, Senate President Jeff Atwater said the state simply does not have the money to increase higher education funding by $1.75 billion over the next five years

Another proposal involved putting further limits on the popular Bright Futures college scholarship program, giving most of the benefits to students who majored in science, math and other fields the state is emphasizing.

Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who is chairman of the Senate Higher Education Appropriations Committee, said it would be wrong to make additional changes to the scholarship program.

Last year lawmakers decided to freeze the scholarship program at current levels, meaning that students had to pay last fall's tuition hikes out of their own pockets.

Another hot-button item that appears unlikely to pass: Placing a constitutional amendment on the 2010 ballot that would allow the state to restart a private school voucher program the state Supreme Court declared unconstitutional.

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