January 1, 2008

8 in '08: Florida education stories to watch

From flubbed FCAT scoring to FAMU's woes and academic cheating scandals at FSU, 2007 was an exciting year for education reporters. 2008 may not have quite the same flair as last year, but there are certainly stories to watch. The following are stories that are certain to be in the headlines. There are a few others that may be prominent, but I'll be cautious in making predictions.

  1. Florida's science standards. Criticized for years because the state science standards failed to mention evolution, Florida's Department of Education has drafted proposed new standards that  put evolution front and center. The draft standards have become a magnet for political efforts to insert creationism in the state's public schools, as well as an organized effort to support the new standards. At least one member of the state Board of Education has publicly announced opposition to the new standards because they include evolution. Until the February Board of Education meeting that decides whether to approve the draft standards, this will be the top education story in the state.
  2. Tax politics. The state's January 29 ballot includes a constitutional referendum that would reduce property taxes. That ballot measure's passage is far from certain, but there are three ways that other proposals could get on a later ballot (especially November's): legislative action, a citizen's petition, or through the state's Taxation and Budget Reform Commission. Of those, the commission route is probably the easiest. Changed tax measures could either cut or boost education spending. If a property tax-reduction measure passes in January or November, that could slash K-12 taxes at the local level and put pressure on the legislature to reallocate state funding to K-12. If a measure gets out of the commission and passes to reduce the huge number of exemptions granted in the state's sales tax, that could boost education funding. Or at least stabilize it (see the next item).
  3. The state budget. The legislature has already had a special session in October to cut the state budget, and given continuing declines in the actual revenues collected when compared to predictions, the political question is whether the legislature will come back into special session before April to cut this year's budget again or whether it will dip into the reserve fund and wait until next year to enact Draconian cuts. In either case, there will be reductions for both K-12 and higher education. The state's university system chancellor has warned of even greater layoffs and problems offering students enough classes to graduate on time.
  4. FCAT and accountability. In 2007, the state acknowledged errors in the scoring of third-grade reading tests for 2006. In the aftermath of the errors, the interim commissioner for the state created a state advisory group that began discussing problems with the state's accountability system. There have been two concrete efforts to come out of that group, the hiring of the Buros Center (from Nebraska) to review the state's testing system (with a few reports now released) and some proposals to change the state's way of assigning letter grades to schools. But more generally, both the flaws in 2006's scoring and the external advisory group have opened up discussion about accountability, and I expect that debate to continue.
  5. Triple whammy for community colleges. In response to budget pressures, the state university system's Board of Governors voted in summer 2007 to cap first-time-in-college enrollment beginning in spring 2008. This enrollment freeze will shift more enrollment to the state's community colleges as the baby boom echo is hitting adulthood and when the state's economic woes are encouraging older workers to return to school for retraining. Florida's high school graduates have a right to attend community colleges, but that right to matriculate does not guarantee them seats in the classes they need. And unlike the state's university system, community colleges do not have a constitutional body to protect their interests.
  6. The Graham-Frey lawsuit. In the spring, the governor line-item vetoed a measure that would have given universities the authority to raise undergraduate tuition 5% beginning in the fall 2007 term. That line-item veto could have been challenged on technical grounds, but a bipartisan independent group decided to file a lawsuit instead on the whole question of who determined tuition... or, rather, who controlled the state university system. In the summer, the state's Board of Governors signed on, and the first real hearing on the lawsuit was held in the fall. This lawsuit could determine not only who sets tuition but who can approve or reject new universities, programs, etc. Most observers I have talked with expect this to go to the Florida Supreme Court, eventually.
  7. FAMU's accreditation. In 2007, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) placed Florida A&M University on probation for a variety of concerns, mostly financial. As new FAMU President James Ammons has tried to clean up the financial matters, SACS kept FAMU on probation during its late-fall meeting. While I am guessing FAMU will come off probation in the next half-year, that is a guess, and this is a major story for the state's universities.
  8. Standards for voluntary pre-kindergarten. In 2002, voters approved the creation of publicly-funded voluntary pre-kindergarten in Florida. The system that the legislature created was poorly funded, with minimal standards for quality. In effect, the legislature was creating a partial subsidy for parents who needed or wanted full-time child care for their preschoolers, as private preschools crafted packages where the morning was the state's VPK program, while the afternoon was privately paid. There have been continuing grumbles about the quality, even as the (relatively sketchy) measures of "kindergarten readiness" have improved. Will there be any stomach for revisiting the system?
There certainly will be other stories that will rise to prominence, but these are my guesses of relative sure bets for topics of education news stories in Florida this year. (Disclosure: I am personally involved in a few of these stories as a faculty union member and as a late-to-the-party member of the state's FCAT advisory panel. I'm also personally involved in stories that didn't get the cut, and I tried to play this straight, but you can be the judge of that.) Listen to this article
Posted in Education policy on January 1, 2008 10:37 AM |