State Politics

Education-changing legislation passed

Educators, parents and students cheered and then took a collective sigh of relief when Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed a bill that would have upended the current system of paying and firing teachers.

While that proposed law dominated daily news coverage, a handful of others that could change the state’s education landscape significantly moved forward without nearly the same level of public attention.

And those are almost certain to become law or, in one case, go to the voters to change existing law.

They are:

n Adding more rigorous math and science classes to graduation requirements and replacing high school FCATs in those subjects with end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology.

n Asking voters in November if they approve of changing the 2002 class size amendment, which meets its final deadline for implementation this year. Instead of requiring each classroom to meet the mandates, the change would allow school-wide averages to be used.

n Expanding the state’s voucher program for low-income kids so private schools could eventually collect as much as 80 percent of the per-student money given to public schools by the state. The program gives companies a tax credit if they award scholarships for approved private schools.

“This was a banner year for education,” said state Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who supported all of the measures. “With or without Senate Bill 6.”

Senate Bill 6, or SB 6 as it came to be known, would have been the most radical change had Crist not vetoed it last week following a flood of public opposition.

New teachers would have been hired on annual contracts with no possibility of tenure. Raises would have been tied to student learning gains. School districts would have been forced to develop end-of-course exams for subjects that don’t have standardized tests.

It’s only because Senate Bill 6 was so dramatic in ways that energized people on a lot of different levels did all the other things that are happening in public education not receive attention they would have otherwise,” said Carolyn Herrington, director of Florida State University’s Center on Educational Policy. “These are enormous changes.”

If Crist signs this widely supported bill into law as expected, students will have to take geometry, Algebra II, biology, chemistry or physics plus one equally rigorous science course in order to graduate. The number of credits — four in math, three in science — remains the same, but only Algebra I is now a specific requirement.

High school math and science FCATs would be eliminated, replaced with end-of-course exams in algebra, geometry and biology.

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said the district has supported the bill because it moves Florida students in the right direction to be competitive internationally.

But, he cautions: ‘I think we ought to brace ourselves for a decrease in graduation rates as there is a natural adjusting to the requirements.”

Broward Schools Superintendent Jim Notter questioned whether it was the right move to require every student — even those with career goals that would require other types of math and science — to take those courses.

He was also concerned about where he would find the teachers for advanced math and science, considered critical shortage areas.

Herrington called the new graduation requirements “a stretch.”

“In some ways, it’s always good to have high standards,” she said. “I think this is particularly demanding and I’ll kind of be surprised if it’s able to hold.”

An amendment that voters approved in 2002 said class sizes in core classes must be limited to 18 students in grades pre-K through third, 22 in fourth through eighth grades and 25 students in high school. Every class would have to meet those requirements at the start of the 2010-11 school year.

If at least 60 percent of voters agree in November, the requirements would be frozen at school averages instead of classroom-by-classroom. The limit in each classroom would increase by three students for the earliest grades and five for fourth grade through high school.

School districts, complaining that they haven’t received enough funding to fully meet the law, have supported putting the amendment on the ballot.

Carvalho called the amendment “a reasonable approach to meeting class size reduction requirements.” Notter said districts need the flexibility of letting some classes have one or two extra kids as long as others make up for it.

The measure passed 77-41 in the House of Representatives and 26-12 in the Senate. It will go straight to the voters.

The state’s tax credit scholarship program, commonly referred to as vouchers, will include more students if Crist signs the bill as expected. The proposal would increase the maximum amount of money available from $118 million to $140 million.

Corporations receive a tax credit if they make a donation to an approved private school under the program, which serves 27,600 students this school year.

Students get $3,950 per year this school year, but the proposal would allow that to increase over time to as much as 80 percent of the per-student money given to public schools by the state.

It passed 95-23 in the House with bipartisan support and 27-11 in the Senate.

“We thought this was a major event for public education in Florida,” said Doug Tuthill, president of Step Up for Students, the nonprofit organization that administers the program. “It signaled expanded opportunities for low-income families. It’s understandable that these larger issues overshadowed it. For us and these families we serve, this was a milestone.”