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The (Other) Palm Beach Story: Feds & States Tinkering with Education Get Unplanned Results

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WARNING: Severe Reality Curve! This cautionary tale may be unsuitable for the Obama Administration's Department of Education and state legislatures engaging in top-down tinkering with their public school systems. Reader discretion of this opinion is advised.

The other Palm Beach Story does not feature the droll banter of Joel McCrea, or the affable grouch William Demerest. No, our main character in this morality play is Palm Beach County School District's bilious Superintendent, Arthur Johnson.

School superintendents are generally not popular with parents, teachers, or students, but Johnson is ambitiously working his way through the thesaurus from disliked to reviled.

His combative handling of the political curve balls pitched by the state is emblematic of the kind of issues that Mr. Obama's education team, and those in the state bureaucracy who are not playing political games with our schools, face in school districts nationwide.

When Good Federal and State Intentions Meet Local School Czars

You would think that a state mandating smaller class sizes would be a good thing.

In 2002, the Florida State Legislature passed Amendment 9, a change to the state's constitution that mandates caps to class size in public education. The Legislature generously gave school districts until 2010-2011 to get their student counts per class in line.

During the fattest financial times in the Palm Beach County Schools' history, the big housing boom of the first decade of the 21st century, the district, largely led by Johnson, did not save up for a rainy day, or or bring its class sizes into compliance with the state law in time for its roll out. Now the $3.3B school district, that is tens of millions in the red, faces a $25M yearly fine for non-compliance.

They, and other foot-dragging districts, are crying foul. Several are in the courts challenging the law, saying that the legislature did not fund this mandate, and that they cannot, particularly in times of shrinking property values and therefore school taxes, meet those goals.

Johnson told the Palm Beach Post that it will take nearly $59M more per year to pay for the extra teachers and classroom space.

His solution to this problem? Last week, he had the bureaucrats sneak a short request into some "minor" rules changes, asking for the School Board to grant him the right to reassign any child in the district to any school at his sole discretion.

That's a big violation of the board-run, parent-involved process currently in place. The plan was met with outrage by parents who fear their child being potentially put into a "B" or "C" school that is less crowded, or being bused miles away from home daily in the fourth largest school district in Florida and the13th largest school district in the United States.

The Board, which had initially okayed the package of rules 7-0, balked after Cara Fitzpatrick, an education beat reporter for the Palm Beach Post, caught the power grab and brought it to light.

Under pressure, Johnson withdrew the proposal, telling the Palm Beach Post that his request was designed more as a publicity stunt to get the attention of parents to support Amendment 8 in the upcoming election. The amendment is a ballot measure calling for the raising of class sizes back up to as many as 35 students in a high school classroom. It is expected to fail.

Johnson's big-scalpel tactics landed hardest on the kids in the district whose parents keep up with all of this. Many suddenly realized how their lives could be up-ended, and they were unhappy. So were parents, particularly those of students in magnet schools admitted by audition or lottery in the School Choice program.

Magnets Don't Attract Money to Community Schools

The Palm Beach Story continues. Magnet education has been an unqualified success in Palm Beach County. One of the District's schools, the A.W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach, usually ranks in the 50s annually in Business Week's survey of the top 1300 public high schools in the country. The district often boasts more than a half-dozen of their high schools, both magnet and community, in the top 100.

Four years ago, though, Johnson called his best school "elitist" at the commencement ceremonies of a Dreyfoos graduating class. He suggested that the school, along with the rest of the magnet system, should be disbanded.

Since then, he has instituted policies that the rubber-stamp School Board has endorsed, including a freeze on the specialized hiring needed for accelerated magnet education, and he instituted a "lottery" system to water down the number of bright students leaving the community schools. Think of what would happen to Harvard or Wharton if anyone could attend based solely on the luck of the draw rather than ability and work ethic.

Why set such a terrible educational example?

Cash. The state and the feds both reward schools with good "grades" that jump through the funding hoops by teaching to their state tests well enough to get money. The more bright kids that Johnson keeps in their community schools, the better their FCAT scores. The better their FCAT scores, the more money that the district will receive from the feds and the state.

The worth of the individual child, and the development of better programs that prepare them as individuals for the world, is given a back seat to their cash value as a number and an FCAT score for the district.

School "accountability" is more of an accounting trick that pads the pockets of big national testing companies, and may force educational models that work against one-size-fits-all education into extinction.

Why Education Should Be on ESPN

Education has more action than the NCAA and NFL grid irons combined. Schools and teachers are more political footballs than they are educational institutions and instructors, respectively.

A few years ago, the state opened its "DROP" retirement program to county teachers. It promised them a better rate of return than the school district's plan.

DROP runs for five years, and, according to the contracts which everyone signed until last year, these teachers should have been allowed to extend the date of their retirement in three year increments to the maximum retirement age of their particular school district. They were even told that the state wanted to keep experienced teachers who were propping up the system academically when the plan was pitched.

Then the economy in Florida sank beneath the horizon off Key West. The legislature, powered by conservative forces, backed by business and special interests wanting to bust the teachers unions, saw changing the law that created DROP as a political win. Slam the career door after five years on anyone in DROP, and lose union teachers and give the districts a salary haircut.

Which is probably why Johnson, and other cash-strapped academic Attillas running school districts in Florida are not bucking the state on the change.

The big problem is that they rewrote it retroactively, violating their deal with the teachers who had signed on, and trapping them into a plan where they cannot return to the profession.

That means that thousands of the most experienced teachers across the state will be forced into retirement annually, beginning this year. Estimates are that Palm Beach County will lose a few thousand of its most experienced teachers over the next two years.

They are being replaced by younger, less well-paid greenhorns who cost school districts less, but also do not bring as much to the table quickly.

Testing Twice

The FCAT, the state's standardized test, is worse than useless. NCS Pearson, one of the big beneficiaries of state-wide testing, was awarded a $254 million contract to administer the FCAT beginning last school year. The firm managed to deliver the results of the test weeks late to schools and teachers that needed to position students for the 2010-2011 academic year.

The FCAT is of little educational use to the district, which conducts its own battery of assessment tests at the beginning of each academic year as well. These exams provide them more specific real-time information that is more focused to the needs of schools and educators in the district.

Politicians like to rant and rave about wasteful spending, but nothing is more wasteful than the FCAT and other state-built exercises in political theater.

If state standards could be set, and met by local school boards on their own standardized tests, set at times appropriate to that district, administered by companies of the local school district's choosing, with state scrutiny of the exams so that they pass political muster, the districts would save bundles of money, and be able to administer tests that are useful teaching tools meeting federal, state and community needs.

Epilogue

Education is a costly business, but one very vital to our ability to compete in the global economy. These stories are commonplace, shop-worn tomes to anyone familiar with education reform. There are many pedagogic potentates, like Palm Beach's superintendent, who will use or misuse the top-down reforms at the local level to deal with their own agenda.

Until Mr. Obama and governors like Charlie Crist can see that the trees in the new educational forest are managed in small, proprietary clumps, any top-down "program" is doomed to failure. The initiatives of the Feds and the States pull and tug with money, and the school district's bureaucracy can pull in another. Schools are still intensely local, and no amount of Federal money or threats to cut off same seem to make much difference in a positive way long-term.

We need to turn our educational institutions back into schools, not the fifty yard line of some game played by the state house or the U.S. Congress. If we don't, our broken educational system is apt to limp along for another half-century, mired in educational programs built for the 19th century Industrial Age, not 20th century America.

My shiny two.