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Feds say all Florida schools must pass

By Ron Matus

TALLAHASSEE - Florida schools won't get a reprieve from federal sanctions after all.

State officials said Wednesday that negotiations with the U.S. Department of Education over so-called provisional schools - schools that earned A's and B's under the state grading system but still failed federal standards - have fallen through.

"Like many of you, I am disappointed with the final result," Commissioner John Winn said in a memo to school superintendents.

"It was too big of a jump," said deputy commissioner Hanna Skandera.

The mood was far different two months ago, when a beaming Winn announced that federal officials had agreed to the new provisional label and that talks were under way to shield many of those schools from penalties mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The act requires that struggling, high-poverty schools offer their students options such as transfers and free tutoring, all at district expense.

Wednesday's announcement means that "provisional" remains just a name.

It also means state and federal grading systems will continue to be at odds.

While two-thirds of Florida schools earned A's or B's under the state grading system this year, more than 60 percent failed to meet federal standards. A major goal of the provisional label was to bridge the divide.

"It's almost like when there is a product and they slap a new-and-improved label on it," said Damien Filer with Communities for Quality Education, a group with ties to teachers unions that has been critical of the provisional label. "When you take a closer look at the ingredients, nothing has changed."

State officials said that while they were hoping for more from the U.S. Department of Education, the new label itself was progress.

"It's a precedent-setting status," Skandera said in an evening teleconference.

A spokesman for the federal department said Wednesday that U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings offered to let Florida try a pilot project with provisional schools. State officials were seeking to limit the federal sanctions in such a way that only struggling students in struggling schools would be eligible for transfer and tutoring options, not every student in those schools.

But Florida decided it was all or nothing, Skandera said.

June's announcement about the provisional label came shortly after a glowing visit to Tallahassee by Spellings, who announced she was granting other changes Florida was seeking to the No Child grading system. At a Tallahassee press conference, Winn even presented Spellings with a charm bracelet, complete with the official Florida seal. A room full of state Department of Education employees cheered.

Given Spellings' visit and the tone of Winn's announcement, some observers figured the feds were leaning Florida's way on the rest of its request.

"It was my assumption that this was a done deal," said David Mosrie, chief executive officer of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Some districts were hoping the provisional label would provide relief. Up to 370,000 students statewide will be eligible for free tutoring this year, now that the provisional label won't give districts an out. The cost to districts will be in the tens of millions of dollars.

In west-central Florida, though, districts took Wednesday's news in stride.

"We were kind of predicting this," said Jeff Eakins, a principal on special assignment in Hillsborough County.

Plans already were in place in Hillsborough to offer tutoring to 23 provisional schools that receive federal poverty funding. In October, the district expects to offer tutoring to about 4,600 students at 60 schools, at a total cost of about $6-million.

In Pasco, letters recently went out to parents at seven provisional schools notifying them that their children were eligible for transfers or tutoring, despite the schools earning A or B grades.

In Pinellas, 27 elementary schools will provide tutoring to their poorest students.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox doesn't see it as a burden.

"We just have to keep doing the right things regardless of what label they put on a school," he said.

State officials say they are continuing to work on other ways of bridging the state and federal grading systems.

Last spring, Spellings appointed Winn to a task force that will examine whether the federal system should include "learning gains," which would give schools credit for the progress made by students who struggle the most. Florida's system already uses such a calculation.

Such a shift could be in place by the 2006-2007 school year, Winn said in his memo, "holding promise for truly supporting the incredible progress you are making each and every year with Florida's students."

Times staff writers Melanie Ave, Rebecca Catalanello and Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at 727 893-8873 or matus@sptimes.com

— Ron Matus
St. Petersburg Times


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