Florida Looks to Raise Standards on Thinning Budgets

Florida has made root and branch changes to boost academic rigor in public schools and buff its national reputation, but benchmarks such as the National Assessment of Education Progress show that the state is still far behind pacesetters like Massachusetts, writes the Orlando Sentinel.

State officials have now proposed raising the bar for passing the state’s overhauled Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT 2.0. It’s a proposal that new state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson declares “represent(s) the next great step in our journey to create a model education system for the nation.”

The FCAT helps guide decisions on student promotion, course assignment and graduation. Last month a panel led by Florida school superintendents reviewed recommendations from an educators’ panel to raise passing scores for the test. And increased rigor will help Florida compete both on the national and global stage. But educators worry about the fallout. Former U.S. Sen. George LeMieux, seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson in 2012, said:

“If we’re going to create great jobs in this state, we need better education… It requires money, and this is a controversial thing to say … tuition at our universities is way too low.” In fact, it’s 45th lowest in the nation, the College Board reported last week.

Last year, 16 percent of third-graders couldn’t manage a passing score on the FCAT reading test. The proposed scoring would have raised that to 18 percent, meaning an additional 36,400 students in jeopardy of repeating third grade.

Florida universities need more investment, not less. And they need state leaders who understand that the best education is never the cheapest, writes the St. Petersburg Times.

The state’s contribution to universities is down 27 percent during this recession and upshot of such disinvestment by taxpayers is that Florida’s four largest universities now spend far less on students than similar-sized counterparts across the Southeast — particularly those with national reputations and higher aspirations.

For example, taxpayers in North Carolina in 2009-10 sent almost as much money to Chapel Hill to support the University of North Carolina, $11,300 per student, as this state spends in tax and tuition dollars combined at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Add tuition dollars and UNC-Chapel Hill spent 70 percent more per student — nearly $19,500 — than the University of Florida’s $11,500. This means that students paid more to attend UNC: $8,200 average tuition and fees compared with UF’s $4,800.

However, at both institutions, students contributed 42 percent of costs, based on the data the institutions submitted to their accreditation agency, the Southern Regional Education Board.

If, as Gov. Rick Scott insists, Florida’s future depends on “world-class schools,” ratcheting up academic rigor is considered right thing to do. Now, lawmakers need to do right by schools.