Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Florida Back To The Future: Build Prisons, Cut Schools

The Tampa Tribune

Published: May 6, 2008

The Miami Herald's analysis probably said it best: The big winners in the new state budget are prison builders; the big losers are public schools.

Talk about getting your priorities wrong.

When the legislative session ended Friday, Gov. Charlie Crist and lawmakers congratulated themselves for a job well done. But public schools and parents found nothing to celebrate. They know the $900 million cut in K-12 funding will hurt education when public schools begin the new year in August.

In remarks after the Legislature closed, the governor focused not on the cuts, but on having saved the state's merit-pay plan for teachers, a program used by just a handful of districts, including Hillsborough.

The merit-pay plan is not highly regarded because the way it's scored - a mix of FCAT scores and performance reviews - falls short of rewarding the most effective teachers. This year half of the finalists for Hillsborough's Teacher of the Year - including the winner - didn't qualify.

It would be far better to spend the money in ways that clearly benefit students and reward strong teachers.

Floridians deserve straight talk from the governor. Even the most optimistic among us cannot pretend our schools will be better off next year, and Crist should not suggest otherwise.

Most disappointing is that the governor promised to hold education harmless when he campaigned in January for Amendment 1, the state constitutional amendment that allows homeowners to take their property-tax cap with them when they move. Critics said the amendment's passage would hurt public education, but Crist promised education would be held harmless.

Harmless. That was his word.

Harmless. Tell that to the teachers in Pinellas County who face pay cuts and the closure of seven to 10 schools.

Harmless. Tell that to Hillsborough students who will likely see fewer librarians and school nurses, as well as overcrowding in elective classes not covered by the class-size amendment.

Harmless. Tell that to Broward and Miami-Dade schools, which will take about a third of the $900-million cut and expect to have to lay off social workers and guidance counselors.

Harmless. Tell that to the schools cutting summer school programs, school security, and art and music classes.

In Tallahassee's depressing climate, lawmakers couldn't even agree on a way to give cash-strapped districts temporary relief from class-size caps, which continue to require the construction of costly new classrooms.

None of this sounds very harmless at all.

At the same time, the state plans to spend nearly $300 million to build new prisons and, incredibly, another $86 million to operate a private prison.

Florida's prison population is expected to soar from about 96,000 inmates today, to 120,000 inmates by 2012.

Experts say the best way to slow the need for prisons is to put your money into cheaper, more humane efforts at prevention, starting with education.

This year, Florida sounded a retreat in the battle. By doing so, lawmakers failed our children.

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