Florida elementary school pupils who aren’t already getting out from behind their desks for some physical activity will soon see a big jump in the amount of time they spend exercising and playing sports, under one of several education-related measures approved in Florida’s recently concluded legislative session.
State lawmakers, at the urging of Gov. Charlie Crist, who took office in January, enacted a requirement that K-5 schools provide a minimum of 150 minutes per week of physical education. While not requiring it, the legislation also recommends that middle school students receive at least 225 minutes of physical education each week.
The legislation came during a two-month session in which lawmakers also approved a new merit-pay program for teachers and increased overall K-12 spending by 6.8 percent.
Until now, Florida was one of 15 states that didn’t have an elementary school physical education mandate, said Karen G. Dowd, the executive director of the Florida Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation, Dance, and Sport.
“It is absolutely fundamental to learning,” Ms. Dowd said about physical education.
Even though many Florida districts are already providing their own programs, Ms. Dowd said that the challenge is to make sure they are offering high-quality instruction that goes well beyond dodge-ball and kickball. She added that high-tech instruments such as heart-rate monitors and pedometers can encourage “the abundance of children to be active at one time” while checking on their progress.
‘A Different Atmosphere’
While Gov. Crist, a Republican, didn’t get everything he proposed, the passage of the elementary school measure was indicative of the governor’s overall success in his first legislative session, which ended May 4, and a signal that the mood in the state capital of Tallahassee has changed.
“We really never were a part of anything other than attacks,” Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, said about the administration of former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush. “It’s such a different atmosphere.”
Mr. Pudlow said the union—an affiliate of both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers—is also pleased with the passage of the new Merit Award Program, or MAP, a $147.5 million-a-year performance-pay initiative that is based in part on student learning gains. MAP will replace the Special Teachers are Awarded, or STAR, program approved by the legislature last year. (“Legislature Votes to Replace Merit-Pay System in Florida,” March 28, 2007.)
The new program is “much better,” Mr. Pudlow said, because it allows for more flexibility for school districts and unions to negotiate over the specific terms of the performance pay.
Coaches, school counselors, librarians, psychologists, principals, and other education professionals will also be eligible for the awards, which will range from 5 percent to 10 percent of an employee’s salary.
The union is also pleased by the failure of an attempt by legislators to put corporate donations for private school vouchers in a trust fund that could not be spent on public schools.
Ever since the Florida Supreme Court ruled early last year that the state’s Opportunity Scholarships were unconstitutional, voucher supporters have been working to protect from legal challenges the state’s other two voucher programs: the Corporate Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which serves about 15,000 poor students, and the McKay Scholarships, which go to more than 17,000 children with disabilities. (“Fla. Court: Vouchers Unconstitutional,” Jan. 11, 2006.)
Lawmakers defeated a plan to revive the program that was struck down by shifting the recipients of the Opportunity Scholarships into the program that is underwritten by private donations from corporations.
Thomas Perrin, the director of public affairs for the James Madison Institute, a conservative think tank in Tallahassee, said that because the trust-fund bill passed the Senate, it’s likely supporters will try again next year. He added that Gov. Crist hasn’t indicated that he would be opposed to such a move.
Mr. Pudlow also expects the issue to be raised again.
“We don’t doubt that it will be back,” he said.
Florida educators were relieved, meanwhile, that even though state sales-tax revenues are down and some government services experienced budget cuts, schools will see an increase in the coming fiscal year.
Out of a state budget of almost $72 billion for fiscal 2008, the budget awaiting the governor’s signature provides $33.3 billion for K-12 schools, an increase of $1.2 billion.
Legislators managed to expand the state’s reading-coach program, adding another 80 coaches to the existing corps of more than 2,300. Gov. Crist, however, had asked for enough funding to add 400 coaches.
Preschool supporters, however, were unable to find a sponsor for legislation that would mandate a bachelor’s degree for prekindergarten teachers by 2013.
Still, they are encouraged that Gov. Crist has expressed support for such a requirement.
“He is committed to start working with the professionals and the advocates on how Florida will accomplish that,” said Linda Alexionok, executive director of the Tallahassee-based Florida Children’s Campaign. “We’ve had a huge shift in leadership, and that’s where it has to start.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 16, 2007 edition of Education Week