BY RACHEL SHARPE
Governor Rick Scott released his budget for next year and surprised many people by including billions of dollars in education cuts. The proposed cuts are estimated between $3.8 billion and $4.8 billion, which translates to a 10 percent decrease in per-student funding. In addition, the state legislature has proposed sweeping changes in how teachers will be evaluated. It has also proposed drastic cuts from the state university system including cutbacks in popular programs such as the Bright Futures Scholarships.
Republicans in the Legislature, who control the budget writing process, have said these cuts are a painful, but necessary reaction to a sluggish economy and the lack of federal economic stimulus. However, as Florida is currently ranked 29th in per capita student funding and 50th in the country for grades K-12, many are justifiably worried that such drastic cutbacks in education are the last thing this state needs.
Governor Scott has told constituents that the answer to improved education in the state is the merit pay bill, which he recently signed into law. Senate bill 736, which ties student’s performance on standardized tests to teacher salaries, continues an ongoing controversy over education reform. The bill is similar to Senate Bill 6, which was vetoed last year by former Governor Charlie Christ after being widely criticized by teachers, parents and students. Senate Bill 736 overhauls how teachers are evaluated and paid and judges instructional quality by looking at student growth on standardized tests. Senate Bill 736 states that all new teachers will be signed to one-year contracts. If their students don’t perform well on standardized tests, their job could be in jeopardy. Veteran teachers hired before the bill was signed into law must either choose to stay on the old tenure system with no chance for performance bonuses or change to the new system.
“We’ve got to reward teachers based on their effectiveness rather than how long they’ve taught,” Scott said.
Democrats and many teachers are against the bill because they believe that merit pay disregards the true essence of teaching and forces teachers to teach only to the test.
“The current merit pay bill is a misguided, poorly written, poorly thought out attempt to devalue teachers,” CCHS English department head Suzi Margolin said. “No one will stay in an environment like that. It would also restrict the curriculum to test preparation.”
Merit-pay will require end of course subject tests to be developed for all subjects, which will require millions of dollars to implement. Those opposed to the law wonder if there will be enough money to pay for teacher merit raises.
“Florida Governor Rick Scott took a wrecking ball to the dreams and aspirations of the state’s public school students by imposing a test-and sanction-driven education policy that rejects the proven educational strategies of the world’s highest-achieving nations,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Another education issue that is already deeply affecting students and their families during such hard economic times is the availability of scholarships. These scholarships, including the popular Florida Bright Futures Scholarship, originally designed to pay tuition costs for eligible students at public universities, and Florida Residents Access Grants, which provides benefits to private school students, are both undergoing cutbacks. Already, current students who have earned the Bright Futures Scholarship are not receiving what they were promised at graduation. Governor Scott’s proposed budget cuts signal even bigger cutbacks. The Senate wants to cut per-student funding of those scholarships by $1,000, while the House has suggested a 15 percent cut. Legislators also want to toughen eligibility requirements for Bright Futures so that fewer students qualify.
“The Bright Futures scholarships are a wonderful opportunity for Florida students, especially since we have great local state universities right in our area,” CCHS guidance counselor Beverly Childs said. “Reducing such scholarships by $1000 will make a huge difference to some.”
Many Democrats, who are significantly outnumbered in both the Florida House of Representatives and Senate, are concerned about proposals to cut student aid during a time when many families are struggling and tuition costs are rising.
Proposed budget cuts also have student athletes worried that there won’t be enough funding for middle and high school sports, including money making sports such as football. Proposals to eliminate all extracurricular activities in elementary school, all non-neighborhood transportation and all staffing for after school activities are on the table. Many believe that under such circumstances, extracurricular activities should be the first thing to go. However, others argue that sports and extracurricular activities are just as integral to a child’s education as academics.
Those who supported class size reductions over the past several years are likely to be disappointed too, as budget cutbacks will almost certainly require school boards to increase student-teacher ratios and many teachers will likely lose their jobs.
According to the Orlando Sentinel, the student-teacher ratio in Florida public schools may increase by up to 10 students despite voter-mandated restrictions against overcrowded classes that went into effect this year. All sorts of options are on the table to get around the class size mandates. One of these options is to reclassify core classes as electives, which don’t carry the class size restrictions. Currently, there may be no more than 25 high school students in a core subject. The Florida Legislature is attempting to circumvent the mandate by labeling fewer subjects as “core.” For example, subjects such as calculus, statistics, trigonometry and economics could be reclassified as electives so that a greater number of students would be allowed in each class.
“The larger the class, the harder it is to handle,” CCHS foreign language teacher Cynthia Turni said. “It will make it more difficult for students to do well.”
Another way to get around class size mandates is virtual classes, which have become increasingly popular. Virtual schools, which were originally a way for students to make up credits for courses they failed, are now being pushed as a way to save money on teachers and classrooms. Proponents believe that the online education trend can be very beneficial for students.
“Virtual schools definitely serve a purpose,” Margolin said. “They can be highly beneficial for students competing to be at the top of their class because it will lift their GPA’s.”
However, critics say that online learning is fraudulent and there is no substitution for face-to-face learning.
“I think virtual schools allow students to learn less,” Turni said.
Other cutbacks on the table include a 12 percent cut in transportation and another 12 percent in non-instructional support such as clerks, custodians, guidance counselors, nurses and social workers as well as reducing the number of teaching assistants or eliminating them all together.
“Such a big cut in educational funding will hurt us tremendously,” sophomore class president Camille Traslavina said. “Education is the most important institution in this country and yet it seems to get the least support.”