January 24, 2010

Florida legislative session education preview

Former Miami Herald reporter and current free-lancer Gary Fineout has a solid legislative session preview on education policy in this morning's Sarasota Herald-Tribune (hat tip). I may disagree with his predictions on the margins, but on the whole I think he's on the money in identifying the obvious issues. Fineout was starting his analysis from the Florida Chamber of Commerce report released a few weeks ago, which had a combination of noncontroversial suggestions as well as a few ideological throwaways (such as the resurrection of the failing-schools voucher program). Fineout is probably correct that budget woes will kill or maim any suggestion with a large price tag (though I would love the suggested large boost to higher education). So let's divide the policy ideas into the noncontroversial and the controversial and then the elephant in the room.

Noncontroversial: end of course (EOC) exams, especially since Rep. John Legg said his bill would have non-biology science EOC exams as non-high-stakes tests. I've been watching that issue in semi-despair for several months after the U.S. Department of Education confirmed the Florida DOE's view that Race to the Top grants could not be used for assessment development. Legg's promise is a good compromise, if it happens as he stated.

Noncontroversial: continuing to use federal stimulus dollars to boost local district budgets. The decline of property-tax collections is the giant sword hanging over schools this year, and the balance of state-local K-12 funding is one of the giant budget issues this year along with Medicaid and the lack of any trust funds to raid for 2010-11. 

Controversial: modifying the constitutional class-size mandate. There might be a compromise here involving statutory changes to the implementing laws. Legislative leaders might have to choose between spending political capital on this issue and on the next two.

Controversial: legislative attempts to end K-12 teacher tenure. The legislature has mandated the end of tenure before, sort of like the way the legislature has mandated merit pay before (next issue below). If the legislature overplays its hand, an extreme bill might turn out to be a short-term nightmare for teachers and a long-term Pyrrhic victory for tenure critics. I can think of at least two ways that FEA can fight more extreme laws in the long term with reasonable chances of winning.

Controversial: merit pay, or rather legislatively-mandated mechanisms. This would be the fourth or fifth go-round on this issue in the past decade in terms of state mandates. Someday there will be a set of legislative leaders who want to work a deal with the FEA on performance pay at a time when FEA leadership is interested in a deal; until then, the heads will continue to butt. (For Mike Antonucci and other union critics, you need to work harder to understand how a teachers union in a state with weak collective bargaining laws can successfully resist state-level mandates when the political branches are often actively hostile to the state affiliate; your usual explanations flounder in Florida.) 

The elephant in the room: money. Legislative leaders seem disinclined at the moment to do anything that could be called raising taxes. While state revenue collection appears to be on a slight upward trend, that is more than counterbalanced by a decline in tax collection at the county level and increasing demands for Medicaid. Last year's budget politics was set by two contexts: growing legislative disillusionment with Charlie Crist and the chaotic aftermath of Ray Sansom's speakership on the House budget committee. This year, Crist is a lame duck who is viewed in the legislature as somewhere between a powerful fool and an opportunistic sell-out, and that's within his own party. Speaker Larry Cretul has reset his caucus's leadership according to his own preferences, which now include one rather than two budget chairs. And Senate President Jeff Atwater may be inclined to burnish his conservative fiscal credentials for his political future. As a result, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander will have several quanta less influence and will probably be picking one or two battles on large issues. I have no idea whether this presages a slow-moving train wreck on the budget or opportunities for quick-thinkers in April. But a budget wreck on the scale of Pennsylvania (if not California) is possible.

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Posted in Education policy on January 24, 2010 12:30 PM |