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Florida School Chief Calls for Slowdown of State Reform Efforts

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Special to Education Week

Tallahassee--Concerned that Florida is moving with too much abandon in its quest to upgrade public schools, the state's education commissioner has called for a slowdown in the reform movement.

"We need more time to chew what we already have bitten off," Education Commissioner Ralph D. Turlington said late last month in an address aimed at state lawmakers, who in their last week of the 1984 session were haggling over how to fund reforms ordered by the 1983 legislature and which new reforms should be added.

Mr. Turlington said his concern stemmed, in part, from the legislature's plan to create a seventh period in all state high schools this fall. That measure, he said, would require the hiring of almost 3,000 new teachers by August.

"Teachers hired hastily, by and large, will not be of the quality that Florida policy demands and the students deserve," Mr. Turlington warned.

"We must not retreat from what has been accomplished, but we are traveling faster than we can travel," he said, recommending that deadlines for implementing merit-pay plans and extending the length of the school day be eased and a host of newer proposals be shelved for a year.

"We must continue to implement the changes that can be made now and move responsibly to greater improvements at the pace that the legislature can fund and to which the people involved can reasonably adjust," Mr. Turlington said.

Similar Pleas

The state's two major teachers' unions have made similar pleas since last summer, when the legislature made Florida a national leader in mandating reforms such as merit pay, stricter graduation requirements, and a longer school day. One union leader even accused Gov. Robert Graham this spring of spearheading the reforms so that he could say his state was first in everything that is "trendy" in education.

Mr. Turlington has backed those reforms even though his department has had difficulty meeting the deadlines, particularly those mandated by the merit-pay plan.

Spokesmen for Governor Graham and Senate President Curtis Peterson, leaders in the education-reform movement, depicted Mr. Turlington's remarks as overly pessimistic. "When you're behind, you need to run to catch up," said Charles Reed, Governor Graham's legislative aide. "The world's not perfect; everything doesn't have to be worked out in the perfect manner before it's implemented."

District-Level Uncertainty

The 1983 legislature ordered the creation of a seventh period by this fall, but left it up to 1984 lawmakers to decide how much money to spend on that project. As a result, many school systems have not yet hired the needed teachers because they were unsure how much money would be at their disposal.

Edward Cisek, Mr. Peterson's education aide, said that was poor planning on the part of school officials. "They were told in January that the seventh period was the top priority in this office," Mr. Cisek said. Those who ignored that assurance that the school day would be extended are "ostriches with their heads in the sand," he concluded.

Trimming Initiatives

Mr. Turlington said he still supports an extended school day, but feels it should be phased in over several years. Too much change too fast can be as destructive as no change at all, he said. "By overextending ourselves, we are in jeopardy of weak-ening progress already made and diminishing some long-range gains in the future." Some legislators in the current session had wanted to add new initiatives to the reform movement as well as carry out reforms mandated last year.

However, because the state experienced a $100-million shortfall in revenue, many of those new proposals--including an overhaul planned for junior high schools--have been dropped.

But merit-pay plans retain legislative support, even though there3may only be enough money to give $1,500 bonuses to top teachers rather than the $3,000 originally sought.

As of last Wednesday, conferees for both houses had agreed to spend $20 million on that statewide bonus plan, which would grade teachers with master's degrees on the basis of a classroom evaluation.

The plan had called for merit-pay applicants to pass a test in the subject they teach. But state officials could not find enough subject-area tests to meet the need and said that developing such tests will take at least another six months.

House and Senate conferees also seemed ready to spend $20 million on separate locally negotiated merit-pay plans, including one that would reward faculties as a whole, not just a few teachers in a school.

The "merit-school" plan would reward all teachers in schools whose overall student body showed significant academic improvement.

Seventh Period Debated

At midweek, the debate over creation of a seventh period was holding up agreement on the state budget and threatening to send legislators into overtime for the ninth consecutive year.

Senate conferees argued that a seventh period would allow for more mathematics, science, and other useful work for students. House conferees insisted it would mean a useless elective for many and that extending class periods from the current 50 minutes to 60 minutes would be more beneficial.

The cost of the extended day created another snag. To a lesser extent, so did the size of the proposed raises for teachers. The budget initially had enough for only 5-percent boosts, but Governor Graham intensified his lobbying for a 10-percent raise, writing letters to every principal in the state asking for support, hosting education writers at a luncheon in the Governor's mansion, visiting editorial writers at all major newspapers, and writing a guest editorial for one of those papers.

The conferees responded with enough money to provide an 8-percent raise. Salary-raise decisions in Florida do not guarantee that all teachers will receive a raise of that amount, but that the state will provide sufficient money to school boards to give the raises in collective-bargaining negotiations with teacher unions.

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