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Fla. Lawmakers Seek Alterations in School-Reform Blueprint

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Florida legislators have been having a tough time this year keeping their hands off the state's sweeping education-reform initiative, which promised schools freedom to make decisions in exchange for improved student performance.

During this session, lawmakers have introduced a stream of bills that would alter the three-year-old reform plan, known as Blueprint 2000. And while reformers say that most of the measures would not harm the undertaking, they caution that the legislative actions could convey the message that education matters again will be dictated from the top.

"They cannot resist the temptation to micromanage,'' said Doug Tuthill, the president of the Pinellas Teachers Association and a member of the commission overseeing Blueprint 2000.

The bills include such mandates as teaching character development, increasing the grade-point average required for graduation, adding an eighth goal for schools, and placing restraints on the teaching of meditative practices.

Few of the measures are likely to become law. The only bill with a good chance of passage calls for adding a goal on parent involvement in the reform process.

"While the accountability commission's position is it is inherent in [reform] that parents are to be part of the process, I think it helps to spell it out,'' said Rep. Cynthia Moore Chestnut, the chairwoman of the House education committee.

Another measure, which received the unanimous support of the Senate education committee, has the potential to disrupt the transition to a student-performance-based system, which has been a much smoother process in Florida than in other states.

The bill requires schools to incorporate character-development education in their curricula.

Among the lengthy list of "traditional values'' the bill mandates are financial self-support, reverence for the institution of marriage, and preference that children be born within a loving marital relationship.

"It does present a real danger because we have avoided all the political land mines,'' Mr. Tuthill said.

"School districts are free to develop a values curriculum,'' Representative Chestnut said. "I have a problem with it when we mandate that they teach all the things enumerated in that bill.''

Political Impatience

In part, observers say, the attempt to tinker with the reform law can be traced to a long tradition in Florida of legislative intervention in education policy.

But they also acknowledge that lawmakers may have some reason for growing impatient.

A recent report indicated that, while some districts had made great headway with their school-improvement schemes, others had shown little or no progress.

"In order to allow the schools to put their plans in place, we're going to need some patience from the legislature,'' said Steve N. Gavalas, a commission member who also serves as a parent representative on two school teams in Hillsborough County.

"In many important ways, Blueprint 2000 was a compromise between those who wanted to keep the status quo and those who were advocating radical reform,'' said Carolyn D. Herrington, the director of the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University.

"I think some sort of deal was cut: Give the education system three or four years to see if it can cut the mustard,'' Ms. Herrington said. "That time is running out, and the people who were willing to back off a few years are getting antsy to see some results.''

But politicians are not a particularly patient group.

"This year is an election year, and everybody wants to go home and say what they've done right with education,'' said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "We try to convince them what's right is to provide more dollars and less mandates.''

Given No Option

But some old political hands are not worried. Philip Lewis, a former senator who currently serves as the vice chairman of the commission, said previous attempts by lawmakers to change Blueprint 2000 have been unsuccessful.

"The only thing that worries me is if this thing goes too fast,'' he said.

Ms. Herrington, on the other hand, said she is more concerned about top-down dictates from sources other than the legislature--including the state reform commission itself.

For example, she noted, the commission ruled that schools would have to address all seven education goals simultaneously, even though violence-plagued schools said they needed to satisfy the goal of providing a safe environment before moving on to the others.

"I don't see any ill will among these people at all,'' Ms. Herrington said. But the schools "really weren't given an option.''

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