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Florida School Leaders Join Battle Against No Child law

TALLAHASSEE -- Florida is entering the rebellion against the federal No Child Left Behind Act and doing it as quietly as possible.

A position paper authored by the state's largest public school superintendents group will implore Education Commissioner Jim Horne to negotiate with federal education officials to reform parts of the 2002 rule and reconsider Florida's self-imposed standards in complying with the legislation.

Last year, 84 percent of Florida's schools failed to meet standards under the federal law even as Gov. Jeb Bush was touting the fact that more schools than ever -- 48 percent -- had earned A grades under his education plan.

Even while at least a dozen states throughout the country, including Republican-dominated Utah and Virginia, loudly opposed President Bush's sweeping education reform law, Florida's education leaders discussed their concerns with no fanfare or press coverage during a meeting with Horne in Orlando.

There are reasons for the stealth in Florida.

"No other state has the brother of the president as governor," said St. Lucie County Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon, secretary-treasurer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "This is not about education. It's about politics."

Florida's superintendents hope to broker a deal with the Department of Education that will be palatable to Gov. Bush and won't look like an ambush of his A-Plus plan and his brother's law. Rallying publicly against the act -- like the 138 superintendents in Pennsylvania did earlier this month -- is not an option for Florida superintendents, they say.

The No Child Left Behind Act was a cornerstone of President Bush's 2000 campaign. It requires all public school students to perform on grade level by 2014 regardless of race, disability or newness to the country.

Schools who fall behind standards, which are raised periodically until 2014, must allow their students to choose other, better-rated, public schools at the expense of the district, implement tutoring programs at no cost to the parent and could ultimately face state takeover or a forced reopening as a charter school.

In Florida, 48 schools, including six in Palm Beach County, had to offer school choice this year because they failed to meet federal standards two years in a row. Every state has turned in plans to comply with the 1,200-page federal law.

But in trying to tread lightly on state's rights, the federal government did not give guidelines on writing those plans, so each state made its own decision on what is considered "adequate yearly progress."

In Florida, for example, making progress last year meant only 31 percent of students had to read on grade level, and 38 percent in math. Student scores, based on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, were calculated by school for eight different subgroups of students -- white, black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian, poor, limited English proficient and disabled. Ninety-five percent of the students in each subgroup must be tested.

The subgroup must have 30 students to be counted, and if any subgroup did not meet the standards, the entire school was considered not to have made progress. Florida's scoring standards, and low subgroup number, made it more vulnerable than other states to miss the adequate yearly progress goal.

In California, only 14 percent of elementary school students and 11 percent of high school students had to read on grade level. California's subgroups had to have 50 students in them to be counted, but only if that equals 15 percent of a school's total population. If it didn't, the subgroup must have 100 students.

As a result, just 45 percent of California's schools failed to meet the standards.

The position paper Florida's superintendents are working on focuses on aligning Florida's subgroup numbers with those used by other states.

Florida legislators are steering clear of any fight at all. Senate Education Chairman Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, said no one has even broached the subject of No Child Left Behind with him.

"I haven't heard from anyone that they want to take that on," Constantine said. "We don't usurp the federal government. Other state legislators can go through that exercise."

Many are. Last month, Utah's Republican-dominated House passed a resolution barring state educators from using local money to pay for the No Child Left Behind Act. In January, Virginia's Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed a resolution urging Congress to exempt the state from the law.

Republican legislators in Arizona and Minnesota introduced bills that would allow the states to reject parts of No Child Left Behind or opt out of its provisions. And Vermont passed a law in 2003 refusing to implement unfunded federal requirements.

Florida's superintendents will meet March 24 in Tallahassee and could finalize their No Child Left Behind plea. But St. Lucie Superintendent Lannon said he's doubtful Florida's school leaders will be able to have substantial impact on reform because it's a no-win situation for the governor.

If Gov. Bush allows standards to be lowered, he'll look bad to conservatives during a year when his brother needs Florida votes. If Gov. Bush keeps standards high, more schools could land on the federal "needs improvement" list, which likely will be released in August.


— Kimberly Miller
Palm Beach Post


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