November 13, 2006

The election and Florida education policy

Now that I've written about the national elections and K-12 and higher-ed policy, it's time to turn my attention to the states. I know my own state best, so I'll start there.

Jeb Bush will be leaving office, and there is no chance that Charlie Crist will keep Bush's focus on high-stakes accountability. Much of the structure (grading schools based on the FCAT) is in statute, but the state supreme court already struck down the 'failing'-school voucher, and the monetization of accountability depends on the budget every year. Depending on what happens with the state budget, the School Recognition Program might have a lot less money in it during the Crist administration than in the Bush reign.

And the story for the next few years will focus on the state budget for several reasons:

  • The cuts to Florida's slim tax base in the past few years, including the elimination of our one progressive tax (the intangible-property tax), leaves the state vulnerable to almost any downturn.  In some ways, the 2004 and 2005 hurricane seasons rescued the end of Bush's governorship from some painful choices.
  • The constitutional cap on class sizes will create real crunches, as first school class averages and then individual classrooms will have to meet the caps (18 students for PK-3, 22 for grades 4-8, and 25 students for high schoolers). No one has yet tested the constitutional requirement that the state pay the excess costs, but if someone does, my guess is that South Florida will have a lot of construction money headed its way.
  • Crist has promised higher salaries for teachers and a cut in insurance rates and property-tax relief, all without raising taxes.
  • The Medicaid funding crisis is still looming for Florida.
  • The baby boom echo is hitting the state's higher-ed system, with fewer capital-construction dollars to build classrooms.

The items above are the ones that are sure to hit.  The other possible factors:

  • The erosion of the housing market may have some nasty surprises for the state in the next year.
  • In Bush v. Holmes, the state supreme court indicated (in dicta) that it would entertain adequacy lawsuits.
  • The University of Florida's effort to raise money through student fees (though they're not called fees, because they're just charges—can someone explain this to me?) may result in a backlash if it looks like a way to get around previous restrictions on raising tuition.  (Ya think??)

In all this, the legacy personnel from the Bush years will be facing some other consequences:

  • The state overpromised in setting proficiency thresholds for AYP purposes. As a result, the majority of Florida schools have already been labeled as failing (even while the state considers the majority of schools to be A or B schools). While Florida has just been named as a growth-model pilot state, the project hasn't been finally approved, and the statutory requirement of 100% proficiency by 2014 is still out there.  (I don't know the details of Florida's latest proposal. The last version from February, rejected by the USDOE, had a predictive model where a student would be identified as meeting the goal if the trajectory of a student's growth would lead to their being identified as proficient within 3 years.)
  • Many Bush staffers were recently hired by the state house majority (the Republicans). They'll be keeping watch on the legacy, at least partly, while being rewarded for their loyalty and hard work.
  • The primary education bulldog in the lower chamber, former Rep. Ralph Arza, resigned and shut down his reelection campaign just a few days before the election, after he and a relative were caught using the n-word in voicemail messages to a Florida House colleague. This was the second (and more punishing) defeat for Arza, after his hand-picked candidate failed to beat state Sen. Alex Villalobos, who rallied enough moderate Republican senators in the spring session to defeat Bush measures to restore the failing-school voucher program and to water down the class size cap.
  • With Bush leaving office, Governor-Elect Crist will have to figure out how to fill various appointments in the state Board of Education, in approximately half of the Board of Governors, and in each state university Board of Trustees. In turn, that will reshape the leadership politics of each university and in the state department of education. If Commissioner John Winn doesn't make any obvious goofs, my guess is that he will stay as long as he wants.
  • The politics of the state's attempt to impose the more crass versions of merit pay will change, as Crist tries to find money for teacher salary hikes and will want some cooperation with teachers unions.  I suspect he will be very different from Bush in that regard, and the relationship between the new governor's staff and the Florida Education Association will be fascinating to watch.

That's it for today's versions of soothsaying. Play the game at home and see how many of my claims turn out to be dead wrong!

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Posted in Education policy on November 13, 2006 12:22 AM |