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Rita M. Solnet Headshot

Cents and Sensibility ... Inside Florida Education

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We've all heard this expression numerous times this year, "We must tighten our belts" with regards to education. Whose belts are we tightening in the education arena anyways?

Or, did they mean a noose around the necks of taxpayers that we need to "tighten" instead?

To the Ladies and Gentleman of the Florida Legislature: We've officially run out of belt length!

Florida already ranks near the bottom of the nation as lowest per-pupil expenditure if not dead last again. Rather than be humiliated by that fact, some toss that around as a badge of honor.

This Governor must love the limbo. To prove how low he could go, after proposing a wildly unpopular $3.3 Billion education budget cut, he withdrew a billion dollars from our already pathetic education budget this year. To further exacerbate the situation, he then heralded and hurled an unfunded mandate onto counties -- a law enforcing "merit pay." (In the trenches it is laughingly referred now to as, 'moneyless merit pay.' )

This law may appeal to otherwise level headed individuals who unfortunately:

A) Don't realize they will eventually pay more in county taxes to support this ill-conceived mandate;

B) Don't realize that merit pay failed repeatedly in studies across the nation for decades;

C) Are unaware this deprives children of a balanced curriculum of Geography, Civics, Arts, Music, PE, Languages because it converts schools into robotic, unimaginative test prep factories;

D) Don't realize that counties will go bankrupt having to buy costly new tests, test prep materials, new hardware to accommodate this mandate;

E) Don't realize the only beneficiaries of this are multi-billion dollar testing firms, such as Pearson, who fortuitously own FCAT tests, test prep materials, software, Virtual Learning and e-Tutor type subsidiaries.

However, this unfunded law -- SB 736 -- does absolutely nothing to improve the quality of education. There are many victims of Florida's senseless, wasteful education laws. Today, I'm focused on you and me -- Florida taxpayers.

Fast forward to two weeks ago when I received a call from a former Broward County history teacher, a stranger to me, Cherine Akbari. Cherine was one of 1,400 teachers laid off -- ironically during Teacher Appreciation week -- in May citing Broward County budget cuts as the cause.

Ms. Akbari phoned me from outside Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. to share her story. "I'm here," she said, "to put a face to this story. I'm meeting with my Congressman and Senators to explain that what is happening to public education is wrong." Her energetic passion for teaching resounded in everything she said.

That same day, I randomly spotted an article on Broward's inability to meet the class size law. Inescapably, that led me to other articles on Broward's severe budget cuts and the difficulties they were facing.

I was stunned to discover that children were sometimes seated in hallways straining to hear the teacher. In other classrooms, students were camped around the teacher's desk to vie for a place to write. Yet a Broward teacher was outside the Capitol lobbying for her profession and fellow teachers simultaneously. This was a young, energetic, passionate teacher who could alleviate an overcrowded History class.

Something is very wrong here. I don't mean to suggest this problem resides in Broward County alone.

Florida's public schools are beginning to resemble that of a third world country due to severe underfunding of public education. Ask any five teachers in a Florida school district if they have enough books for their classes --it doesn't matter what the subject is -- you will find they don't.

Florida's children have no future if they're not properly educated. Every overcrowded class, each pared down day due to incessant test prep, every week, each semester represents valuable learning time that is being robbed from children. We don't have "do-overs" in K-12 education. We have one shot to get it right and teach them well before they're moved up and out. We live in a nation where majority rules. If that majority is not well educated, we're in terrible trouble.

I decided I must write about this today when I spotted another story on the Broward Superintendent Contract.

I understand the need for competitive salaries to attract great candidates. I really do. However, in the face of all this belt-tightening, desk-sharing, teacher lay-offs, health benefit reductions, etc., I was somewhat taken aback to learn what this package entailed. To laid off teachers and to teachers holding a side job to make ends meet, this contract must read like the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes Prize.

The base salary offered was slightly less than his predecessor, at $268K. But behind curtain #2, the new superintendent also gets a $20K moving bonus, a paid cellphone, paid internet, health care benefits for he and his wife, pension benefits, a $500 monthly bonus for miscellaneous expenses (no receipts required), and a whopping $900 monthly car allowance for what I'm certain won't be a new Toyota Kayak type car.

Tightening our belts? I don't mean to single out Broward but these examples jumped out at me glaringly. Wouldn't this be a perfect time to scale back on these extras and make a statement that we're in this together?

Most of the blame lies in Tallahassee for this embarassingly tragic state of affairs that public education is in. There, I said it -- the B word -- Blame.

Tallahassee legislators who voted for Education Budget Cuts and for SB 736 can take a bow. This is your legacy. Someday your grandchildren --in whatever state they reside -- will read about the egregious laws Florida legislators enacted in 2011 which dismantled public education and created a downward spiral for Florida. Some legislators perhaps did so unwittingly, some chose party loyalty over common sense and evidence, while others intentionally pushed the agendas of testing companies over children.

You're in control of your legacy and Florida's future. You can, and should, repeal this horrific and costly law-SB 736. And while you're at it, level the playing field with some other states and put at least another $3.5 billion back into public education. The sports teams, bottled water firms and other corporations might even be willing to live without their tax credits if they knew what was at stake.

Warning to Districts: If you are repeatedly asking those in the trenches to "tighten their belts" so should you.

*Note: Since submitting this article the Broward School Board revised their compensation package by eliminating the monthly car and expense allowance and raising the salary base.