Amid the wailing about "underfunding" public schools is lost the fact that since reforms by the GOP legislature and Gov. Jeb Bush, education has been improving.
Bush looked beyond the failed effort to improve the schools by throwing money at them. Although education funding increased during his term, he viewed it as “the oil for the reform machinery.” Previous governors had sought to increase inputs (money) as if that were the measure of success.
Accountability, standards and parental choice were the approaches begun in 1999. Afterward, test scores showed steady improvement.
Rising test scores are all the more impressive because the bar was raised four times in the past decade. Still, there are too many low-performing schools. And calculations by Matthew Ladner posted on education expert Jay P. Greene’s blog indicate that the upward trend has begun to taper off. Perseverance is needed.
Florida has made mistakes along the way. A requirement to lower classroom sizes resulted in enormous expense without any measurable improvement in return, and the requirement was relaxed.
Another harmful move was to put ambiguous language in the state constitution that allowed activist judges to rule as they are inclined – on the Humpty Dumpty principle that a word means what they choose it to mean. As a result, an excellent program that allowed children to escape from low-performing schools was crushed by the courts.
Currently, an attack on charter schools appears to be under way, even though some are among the best schools in the state.
But setbacks can be overcome if reformers stay on task. All children can learn. It takes willing learners, caring parents, knowledgeable teachers, able administrators and sound public policy.
Competition and incentives have been part of the solution. Florida is a leader in school choice and digital learning and Bush continues to focus on education reform with his Foundation for Florida’s Future.
The idea, nurtured by special interests and constantly reinforced by the media, that we can simply spend our way to education excellence makes no sense. Especially silly is the constant reference to spending vs. other states. If every state below the average increases spending, it merely creates a new average and half the states still will be “below average.”
Furthermore, public schools have not been starved. In the past 10 years, per-pupil funding for K-12 is up 26 percent despite recent cutbacks. Gov. Rick Scott’s proposal would raise it to 28 percent.
In short, constant references to the amount of money spent on public education are meaningless without comparison to educational outcomes. Florida fourth-graders rank 30th nationally by No Child Left Behind scores. Some states with lower scores spend more and some spend less.
Suppose Florida was spending $500,000 a mile to build roads and other states were spending $1 million per mile for identical roads. Would we lambaste state officials or would we heap praise upon them?
If education advocates focus on what matters, and the Legislature continues pursuing sensible reforms, public schools will continue to improve.
Lloyd Brown was in the newspaper business nearly 50 years, beginning as a copy boy and retiring as editorial page editor of the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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