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Saturday, Aug 23, 2014
Columnists

Dockery: Time for some tough talk about education in Florida

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Let’s talk education.

Why? Because it’s important, because almost everyone has an opinion and because the Florida Legislature is about to start its annual session.

Let’s have a blunt conversation about the politics of education. This may ruffle some feathers.

No, I’m not talking Common Core, the proposed standards that the state Board of Education just adopted to take effect this year despite opposition from the left and the right of the political spectrum. We’ll save that conversation for another day.

Of all the actions policymakers can take, the best are those ensuring access to a quality education for all of Florida’s students — from preschool through college.

Having an educated workforce attracts high-wage jobs and it leads to relocation or expansion of businesses, improved infrastructure and a higher quality of life. It also increases the likelihood that our best and brightest will stay in Florida.

Educating our youth is required by the Florida Constitution and consumes a large chunk of our state budget and local property taxes. So almost every Floridian has a stake in the process, or some skin in the game.

The first bone of contention: Are we investing enough in our public schools and are we spending the money wisely?

Funding for K-12 education in Florida reached its highest funding level in 2007 at $24.3 billion, with the highest per-pupil spending. Last year’s K-12 budget was $22.1 billion, with a lower per-pupil funding.

Education dollars are spent on teachers’ salaries, transportation, textbooks, school maintenance and administration — the typical costs associated with schools. But over the years significant dollars have been diverted to a plethora of testing, a vast variety of accountability measures, and the latest educational experiments and trends.

Incrementally, year after year, with a tweak here and a new program there, money was being drained out of our public classrooms. If every new education policy were funded with additional dollars and not by shifting existing dollars, teachers and parents might find them less objectionable.

But in most instances, it’s been a zero-sum game, with traditional public schools on the losing end of the battle for dollars. Virtual schools, private charter schools, conversion charter schools, tutoring programs, class-size reduction and several different voucher or opportunity scholarship programs began to eat up some serious funding.

While much of the battle is over funding, it’s also about control.

While classroom dollars were shrinking, the list of mandates was growing. Public school teachers were subjected to yearly changes in education policy, textbook selection, curriculum, testing, grading, and accountability standards.

These mandates came from many masters — the federal Department of Education, the state Department of Education, the state Board of Education, the county school boards, superintendents of schools and, finally, their school-based administrators. That’s a lot of bureaucracy, a lot of bosses and a lot of differing opinions. What happened to local control?

The overemphasis on testing and on basing school grades and teacher salaries on test scores has been the most divisive and damaging fallout of the bureaucratic meddling in the public school system; followed closely by the micromanaging of what and how teachers teach.

I can think of no other profession where the Legislature grants so little sway as it does to our teachers and school administrators. Isn’t it time we treated them with the respect they deserve?

We have a duty and an obligation to adequately fund our public schools and to give teachers and local school boards the resources and autonomy to do their jobs.

My suggestions:

♦ Fund K-12 education at a minimum at the 2007 per pupil funding level.

♦ Fund school choice, virtual schools, vouchers and other programs above that.

♦ Reduce the amount of standardized testing in our public schools.

♦ Require the same testing in every school that receives public dollars.

♦ Stop the onslaught of education legislation every year.

♦ Pause any new high-stake testing until properly developed and tested.

♦ Involve teachers in policy, testing and curriculum decisions

Teachers have a difficult enough task instilling knowledge and igniting the desire for a lifetime of learning among their students. Let’s remove the hurdles, reduce the bureaucracy, and empower them with the resources and autonomy to allow them to do their jobs.

Then it would be fair and appropriate to hold them accountable.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.

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