State Politics

High-profile education bills were ‘held hostage’

TALLAHASSEE — In the shadow of a monstrous budget deficit, lawmakers this session proposed big ideas for Florida’s schools.

Loosen the class-size mandate. Raise high-school graduation standards. Scale back teacher tenure. Pay teachers first.

Each enjoyed huge support from some group, be it teachers, administrators or former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future.

But not one is going to happen, at least not this year.

“Most of the education policy, because of the fear that somehow any change was going to somehow affect budgets, was completely held hostage,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who pushed the new graduation standards. “I think they just wanted to stay at status quo, when it came to curriculum and when it came to everything else.”

The biggest non-budget education measures to pass: one that will require students to pay the full cost of losing a textbook — without an add-on that would have mandated civics class in middle school — and a contentious bill to expand participation in a voucher program that gives low-income students money to attend private schools.

“To tell you the truth, we were trying not to do any major piece of legislation,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, a Sarasota Republican. “When you can’t offer any money, it’s hard to make them change anything.”

The focus on the budget was certain to keep controversial ideas, like allowing religious “inspirational messages” at some public-school events, from going anywhere.

High-profile bills, however, were thought to have a shot — particularly loosening class size, with an outcry from school districts that relaxing restrictions voters approved in 2002 would help them save money.

Republican leadership, school boards, superintendents and administrators threw their support behind halting class-size compliance at the current school-wide average, while raising the maximum number of students allowed per classroom. Teachers unions fought them fiercely.

The strict class-size rest rictions are not set to kick in until the 2010-11 school year.

As for the Pay Teachers First bill — which would have forbidden school districts from not fulfilling their contracts with teachers to balance their budgets — it barely got off the ground, despite being unveiled to some fanfare in January by Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami, and Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach.

An idea making it easier to fire teachers will likely come back next year, after a much watered-down version of the proposal cleared the House, but got nowhere in the Senate.

Shorter contracts faced opposition from teachers unions, who argued that existing contracts draw young people into teaching. Lawmakers generally agreed that a budget-crisis year did not give them enough time to flesh out an overhaul of tenure.

“You don’t just, you know, ram the thing through,” said Wise, who endorsed the proposal. “It’s sort of like mating of elephants — it takes two years and lots of noise.”