School Rules May Pinch Funds
Ohanian Comment: So now communities can blame teachers for lack of community development funds. And again, the rich will get richer while the poor are left with nothing.
Florida cities and counties could lose millions of dollars in federal grant money for sidewalks, health clinics and other improvements if Gov. Jeb Bush and state education officials hold onto strict rules that are making it hard for schools to score well on federal math and reading standards.
President Bush is proposing to give a share of $3.71 billion in federal economic assistance only to communities that can meet certain criteria, such as having schools that are making the academic progress required by his No Child Left Behind law.
Florida received $189 million last year in federal community development block grants, one of 18 programs the president hopes to consolidate into a master fund to be administered by the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Only two Florida counties -- Leon and Wakulla -- and 23 percent of schools statewide met No Child Left Behind standards last year. That count is expected to go down when the state raises the academic bar this spring.
If Congress adopts the president's grant proposal, school performance would be a factor used to distribute a portion of the money to communities that demonstrate "readiness for development."
"This would be a bonus or reward for those communities making progress that make a healthy community and economic development possible," said Sandy Baruah, an administrator for the Commerce Department.
Florida's standards for success under No Child Left Behind are among the toughest in the nation, nonpartisan education experts agree, which makes it hard for schools to show adequate progress year to year in reading and math.
By contrast, two-thirds of the state's public schools earned an A or a B last year under the state's own grading system, the A-Plus Plan championed by Gov. Bush.
Florida has the power to amend its standards and probably improve its performance under No Child Left Behind. States have until April 1 to submit revised standards to the U.S. Department of Education for them to be applied to student test scores for the current school year.
However, state Education Commissioner John L. Winn said Friday that the state intends to mostly hold the line.
"Florida is committed to maintaining the high standards we set before NCLB and is not asking the U.S. Department of Education to lower standards, but instead asking them to look at alternatives in their calculations such as including learning gains," Winn said in a prepared statement.
Winn declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed.
Many Florida communities could be hit with a double whammy since the president's grant proposal also cuts 30 percent of the federal aid dispersed by such programs as community development block grants.
That money has paid for a plethora of improvements throughout Central Florida.
Orlando will spend roughly $2.5 million in federal block grants this year on everything from paving sidewalks to installing street lights in low-income areas, said Lelia Allen, the city's housing director. Some of the money is also distributed to community groups who work with struggling residents, she said.
About half of the grant money will be spent in the poverty-stricken Parramore community.
Orange County funded everything from a new seniors center to installing grab bars in showers at the homes of the elderly to improving the infrastructure in older communities such as Washington Park.
Allen said it does not make sense to link the amount of grant money a community receives to its school performance. After all, the work that money pays for, such as improving neighborhood safety, helps children do better in school, she said.
"I couldn't see where it [the funding change] would help in providing a better future for those children," Allen said. "I really would not understand the logic behind it."
No Child Left Behind requires that all students nationwide be proficient in math and reading by 2014. Schools must show adequate yearly progress toward meeting this goal not only for students in general, but also for children grouped by income, race, ethnicity, disability and English fluency.
If just one group of students misses a performance target, either in mathematics or reading, then a school is classified as not making adequate progress.
This year, Florida's goal is 53 percent of students doing math at grade level and 48 percent of them reading at grade level, even for children with disabilities and those who do not speak English fluently.
The federal law gives states great flexibility in how they implement the act, which gave Florida's politicians wide latitude in devising how the state would comply.
For instance, the state counts results for students if 30 or more can be placed in any one group. Georgia, meanwhile, has a group size of 40, while California ranges between 50 and 100, depending on how large the school is.
The smaller the group, the more likely it is for a handful of students to sink a school's status. Both Georgia's and California's schools performed much better than Florida's did under No Child Left Behind.
Penalties for missing the mark are steep. For example, districts can be required to set aside 20 percent of the federal aid earmarked for educating poor kids so any child who wishes to leave a school that fell short of the targets can be bused to one that did not.
Already, millions of dollars that otherwise would have spent on instruction for poor students is now being spent on gasoline and the salaries of bus drivers.
"Florida is an extreme example of the inconsistencies between the state accountability system and the federal accountability system," said Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Educational Policy, which recently released the most comprehensive study of the act to date. "For whatever reason, Florida has not adopted any of those changes."
The Florida School Board Association and the Florida Association of District School Superintendents have lobbied Gov. Bush and state educational officials for changes, to no avail.
Seminole County, considered one of the best school systems in the region, missed making adequate progress last year. Like many districts, its problem areas were children with limited English proficiency and others with disabilities. In the case of students with disabilities, however, it made the reading goal but missed the math target by just 1 percent.
Marjorie Murray, director of special projects for the district, worried about the long-term repercussions.
The law, she noted, permits states to take over school systems that do not hit the targets for every group of children.
"This could be used as an opportunity to take control of schools and turn them over to private companies," Murray said.
"Why are we writing a plan that doesn't accurately reflect what we are doing in Florida?"
Jason Garcia of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Vicki McClure can be reached at 352-742-5928 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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