Florida's Castor Has School-Reform Will, But Budget Deficit Is Getting in the Way

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As she enters a crucial turning point in her tenure as Florida's commissioner of education, Betty Castor seems most aware of the incongruity of her situation--"the irony of all ironies," she says with a short laugh.

Since being elected in 1986 as schools chief of a state with a booming, transient population, waves of immigrant children, and a full measure of the poverty-related troubles of inner cities everywhere, Ms. Castor has never known the luxury of political safe passage.

These days, though, the clash between the opportunities and demands facing the head of the nation's fourth-largest, second-fastest-growing state school system has never been sharper.

Ms. Castor's first term came during a time when growth and prosperity were filling the state's coffers. But a fiscally conservative governor, Bob Martinez, stymied her plans for school improvement.

The current governor, Lawton Chiles, is widely seen as a strong education ally. But the state now is saddled with its worst budget deficit in recent memory.

A parallel fate may await Ms. Castor's ambitious plans to unlock local creativity and spur improved student performance. The legislature last week was putting the final touches on her proposal to reduce state regulation of schools, while holding them accountable for student performance.

Unfortunately for Ms. Castor, her accountability program is moving ahead just as Florida educators are almost universally preoccupied with budget problems and staving off what many fear will be a devastating setback for education in the state.

Indeed, the clamor over financial woes and layoff projections--which are rising into the thousands in the state's largest school districts--has been so great that few have heard or understood Ms. Castor's declaration that an era of school reform is at an end.

"I don't think we can go much further," she said. "In Florida, we went into the reform movement of the last 15 years with gusto. I think we have more prescriptions, and we've had more legislative involvement in the process of how to make education work than just about any other state. But I think we over-reformed, no question about it."

"We lengthened the school day and said school districts could not get extra dollars unless they had a seventh period," she continued. "We did all that with no evidence that a seven-period day was magic. No evidence at all. We tied so much to specific language and requirements."

"A lot of those things were done because people wanted more education and wanted improvement, but never a requirement that the dollars were tied to an outcome," she observed.

Ms. Castor, who arrived in office championing state-mandated dropout prevention and prekindergarten reforms, has become a convert to local control. Her school-accountability plan, which has dominated the legislature's education agenda, focuses on demanding results from local schools. In return, the package promises to strip the red tape from a great deal of state school funding and transform the education department into a technical-assistance agency.

Ms. Castor said that as she monitored the progress of reforms such as the dropout and preschool programs, it became clear that solutions that begin in the state capital could only go so far. And in an atmosphere where business leaders, politicians, and the public were demanding more, it was time for a turnaround.

"I'm convinced that unless you really start putting yourself out on the table and telling people exactly what is happening and using information to foster improvement, you won't get systemic change," Ms. Castor said. "You've got to start measuring. Even though I know all the arguments that the measures are not as precise as we would like them to be, we have to be willing to hold ourselves accountable."

"What we're saying now is let's try to change outcomes. Let's not simply order up a whole bunch of restructuring of schools if, in the final analysis, everything we jump through makes people feel good and helps motivate teachers," she said. "What we really want to get to is what works best for kids."

Observers also believe the bill signals an important change in schools and school reforms to many constituencies outside education.

"Here you have an idea that says you have got to do something drastic to recapture the support of the community," said Robert L. Lathrop, dean of the college of education at Florida State University. "I think she was persuaded by people largely from the business arena that one reason schools have not been effective is because they are not accountable."

Many educators agree that, while the accountability measures may be painful, change is needed. "A lot of our members are very uncomfortable, but we have to show that we agree that the status quo is not working," said Jeff Wright, president of the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA, adding that many see the plan as an important precondition for restructuring the state's revenue system, which does not include an income tax.

Critics, however, call the measure hasty and say it is little more than a transparent attempt to shift blame for the state's education woes onto local educators.

"This bill does not provide for shared accountability," argued Pat Tornillo, president of the Florida Education Association United, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. "While we're willing for teachers to be held accountable, what about school boards and parents and principals and the Florida legislature? What are they going to be held accountable for?"

Mr. Tornillo also wondered aloud about why the accountability plan has been hurried through the legislature. "We're talking about something that has the capability to restructure education in the whole state. Why try to rush it through?" he asked.

Representative Michael Friedman, chairman of the House Education Committee, agreed, calling the accountability measure "precipitous."

"Before we hold schools accountable we need to set some standards first," he said.

Under a compromise plan under consideration by the legislature last week, the accountability provisions would take effect in the 1992-93 school year, after a standards panel meets later this year and schools complete "needs assessments" and draft improvement plans.

Beyond the provisions of the accountability plan, many educators are wondering why Ms. Castor and Governor Chiles are pushing the accountability plan while budget troubles and nagging school concerns go largely unaddressed.

"It just bothers me that, despite all of the deficiencies and what's not being done, we are facing a $1.2-billion deficit, teacher layoffs, and less state money. This is a devastating prospect," Mr. Tornillo said. "This is not the time to push accountability."

One aspect of the dilemma facing Ms. Castor and other Florida educators comes clear on a visit to Tampa Palms, a neatly manicured hamlet nearly 20 miles north of downtown Tampa.

There, on the border between suburban sprawl and Central Florida's native tangle of brush and trees, stands a neighborhood elementary school that has defied all planners.

As is the case for many Florida schools, the backyard at Tampa Palms Elementary has become home to impromptu outdoor hallways connecting the swelling lot of portable brown classrooms.

"Without having any power of clairvoyance, they realized they were going to be over capacity before the first cinderblock was laid," said T.J. Dessy, principal of the school, which was designed for 845 students and opened in the fall of 1989 to more than 1,165.

Next year's enrollment is expected to be as high as 1,300, which should increase the number of portable classrooms to 14.

Statewide, about 100,000 new students entered classrooms this year, and another 80,000 are expected next year.

To complicate matters, the fastest-growing class each year is kindergarten, meaning the cramped classrooms will likely stay that way.

In Tampa Palms, the rush that began in the middle 1970's in Tampa's inner ring of suburbs has just begun.

"We see an increasing crescendo of growth, and this town has gone from a laid-back community to a high-tech business center," he said. "And I see no end in sight."

Further north, in Ocala, Superintendent R.S. Archibald said his district has been forced to use 354 portable classrooms, which house about 17 percent of Marion County's students. Equally difficult to manage is the extraordinarily high mobility of area families, which last year brought a total of 41,000 students through an average enrollment of about 27,000.

Those high rates of growth and mobility are combined with a steady flow of non-English-speaking students and the increasing problems of drug abuse, homelessness, and poverty. In the face of those factors, many have argued that Florida's schools are not ready to be turned loose by the state to meet accountability standards.

Such concerns have only been exaggerated by the state's budget crunch. Districts already have been forced to make one cut this year, and must contend next year not only with stagnant state funding but also with mandated increases in local retirement and pension contributions.

"It probably has taken our attention almost totally away from anything else," said Mr. Archibald of the Marion County schools. "I would describe school districts in Florida right now as almost at a survival level."

In Dade County, the state's largest district and a national leader in efforts to restructure the schools, administrators foresee a shortfall of $100 million to $150 million from their $1.8-billion operating budget. The district expects frozen teacher salaries, cutbacks at magnet schools and in other discretionary programs, elimination of the seven-period day, and as many as 1,500 layoffs.

"The budget issue has overshadowed everything," said the district's associate superintendent, James Fleming. "There has been no single issue in the history of this district that has represented a more severe threat than the fiscal crisis we're in right now."

"We've already told principals to arrange for large-class instruction for some high schools. We're taking a big step back, and here we are--a district that has been so involved in education reform nationally," he said. "Our school-based management teams will be deliberating not on how to improve education but where to cut."

Mr. Fleming said many educators have been frustrated to see that, while they are reeling from budget cuts, state leaders have continued to press the accountability issue.

"They don't exactly win the timing award for 1991," he noted. "To push accountability at a time when you're witnessing the devastation in this state is ironic."

"They will be very hard-put," Ms. Castor agreed in describing the plight of Florida's districts. However, she argued, many educators have failed to see the long-term agenda at work.

"They're saying, 'Wait a minute, if you really want accountability, it means increasing services; it means more aid; it means more support services; and it costs money,"' she said.

"We're saying this is part of an equation that, once we get over this period, everyone will come back and work hard for the resources," she added, citing evidence of growing public support for education.

"What it says to me is that the climate is very ripe for meaningful reform," she said. "What we're doing is building a very strong coalition. I think when you build that kind of momentum, the people will stick with you for a while. It might not last for a decade, but it will last for a few years."

Vol. 10, Issue 32, Page 1, 18

Published in Print: May 1, 1991, as Florida's Castor Has School-Reform Will, But Budget Deficit Is Getting in the Way
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