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An Education Filled Session Yields Winners and Losers

By James Call

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-899448.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – For at least the first half of the 60-day session, lawmakers waged war on battling education ideologies. During that time, they passed a new standards bill for students; decided to ask voters to tweak the state's class size amendment; and tried and failed to change the way teachers were hired, fired and paid.

Fueled by the federal government's offering of millions of dollars in education grants, Florida lawmakers decided this was the year to revamp the way the state educates public school children. They created Senate Bill 2, 4 and 6, and they started by sending a Constitutional amendment to voters in November that would relax current class size limits. Once cleared, the attention turned to a teacher tenure and merit pay bill that drew rallies.

"This is absolute union busting. We are the only organization that has stood up to the machine that has been trying to run this state for the last twelve years in the wrong direction, and we fight and we fight every single session, and if they can get rid of us, then they can railroad over everyone else."

There were TV ads similar to those usually seen during elections.

"Then the union went into the classroom, exploiting and bullying our kids, thinking no one would ever know. Don't let the union bully kids."

The tenure bill cleared the House and Senate and mounting public pressure against it drew Governor Crist to finally veto the measure. But there are signs that something like Senate Bill 6 could come back next year. Republican Senator John Thrasher of Jacksonville sponsored that one.

"There's always tomorrow. I think we've started a national conversation about how to reward teachers, and I'm looking forward to down the road addressing some of those issues again."

Still, Democrats consider the defeat of SB6 a victory. They also scored, with the help of Republicans, a big win: the near death of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, otherwise known as the FCAT. Democrats have been trying to get rid of it for years, and though not completely gone, it's been watered down. The credit goes to the Republican-sponsored Senate Bill 4, which mandates that students take higher level math and science courses and end-course exams instead of the FCAT.

Democratic Representative Martin Kiar of Broward said, "Our high school students will not have to suffer through the FCAT anymore, which is a terrible exam used as a means of punishing our teachers, students, and schools. Now our high school students will take end of course exams which are used more towards educating them and for diagnostic purposes rather than punitive purposes like the FCAT. I thought that was a very big deal."

Much of session was dominated by the big three education proposals, allowing some smaller but still very important pieces of legislation to get through, like an expansion of the Corporate Tax Scholarship program, commonly called School Vouchers. The voucher expansion drew over five-thousand people to the Capitol in support.

"What do we want? Choices! And when do we want them? Now! What do we want? Choices! And when do we want them? Now!"

The governor signed off on the $22-million proposal. It would increase the dollar amount of the voucher and how much money can go into the fund that supports it. Lawmakers are also tightening the standards on who can get a Bright Futures scholarship. The Board of Governors has dropped its lawsuit against the Legislature over who can set tuition. Even while managing a $3-billion deficit, lawmakers squeezed out an additional $1.50 per student for education funding.

Republican Representative Anitere Flores of Miami said, "While we are not perhaps at the number that everyone would want us to be, the fact that we are in a historic economic downturn across the entire world, we had to cut over three-billion dollars from out state budget, to not cut per student funding is I think nothing short of a miracle."

The state lost out on its bid for $700-million in federal education grant money, called Race to the Top, but is planning to re-apply in June.