Many Polk voters confused on what the candidates are bringing to the table where education is concerned.

Posted: October 3, 2010 by The STR in NEWS & LOCAL NEWS, Political NEWS & VEIWS
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According to the Lakeland Ledger:

LAKELAND | If there is any area of public policy that reaches directly into the homes of most Floridians, it is education. The state’s approximately 2.6 million children in public schools and more than 300,000 students in private schools are affected by elected officials’ decisions on everything from tax revenues to allocations for brick and mortar.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott released his education plan last week, about three weeks after Democratic candidate Alex Sink released hers, so Florida voters now have some idea of how the candidates would approach the state’s responsibility for public education and how they differ from one another, although some Polk County residents complain that they have not made their views clear in campaign ads.

The candidates generally follow along lines taken by each party in the past decade, although Scott goes further than past Republicans in his criticism of public education as “an outdated system” and his emphasis on giving parents choices, including expanded use of online schooling. Although details are lacking in both candidates’ plans about how they would pay for their proposals, there are sharp differences between the two (see summaries, page A6).

Parents and school officials in Polk County tend to be skeptical of both candidates. A Lakeland teacher spoke for many when she said, “I don’t like any of them.”

“It’s sad. I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Libby Houghton, 36, a geography teacher at Lakeland Highlands Middle School and a registered Democrat. “I don’t connect with either one of them.”

However, several people interviewed by The Ledger expressed concern about Scott’s views.

“I’ve got some problems with Scott. All the money goes to vouchers, and there’s no increase in the money schools would get,” said Frank O’Reilly, a member of the Polk County School Board.

The role of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which determines student advancement to the fourth grade, graduation from high school and the overall grade given to schools, appeared to be a major concern for Polk parents and school professionals. In an interview in Lakeland recently, Sink said the FCAT needs to be reformed.

“The whole idea that a school can be graded on the basis of one test score from one day is flawed,” she said.

Sink said she favors accountability based on multiple assessments for students, teachers and schools. Students should be tested at several points throughout the year to determine progress and bring remediation, if needed, she said.

“Don’t wait until one day, one high stakes test at the end of the year when students don’t have time to recover,” she said.

Scott’s campaign did not respond to requests from The Ledger for an interview.

However, a cornerstone of Scott’s plan is allowing parents to choose to send their children to any school they wish, whether public, private, charter or online.

“Parents ought to have the right to choose the school that they want to send their children to. With more choice, everything will improve,” he said on Sept. 28 while announcing his plan.

Private schools are exempt from giving students the FCAT, even if they receive voucher money, the state program that subsidizes low-income children to attend private schools. O’Reilly, a Republican, has recently criticized charter schools like McKeel Academy in Lakeland not having to follow the same rules as public schools. He said he agrees with Sink’s position that private and charter schools should be held accountable also.

That same view was held by Janet Lamoureux, president of the Polk County Council PTA.

“Several things concerned me about Rick Scott. I believe in choice, but I’m opposed to vouchers. If tax credits are given to a private school, they should be held to the same standards as public schools, including assessments,” said Lamoureux, a former political independent who declined to say how she is now registered.

Sink has criticized a declining trend in state funds going to public education and said a key to helping school funding is to improve the state’s economy, which would in turn improve the state’s tax base.

“Education is funded to a great extent from property taxes. We have to stabilize property values. I’m committed to putting that as a priority,” she said.

cuts and teacher pay

Scott wants to phase out the state’s $1.8 billion corporate income tax, which is a source of funding for vouchers, and that has raised concerns among supporters of vouchers. He also has proposed cutting property taxes by 19 percent, or about $1.4 billion, and replacing the money for education with cuts elsewhere in the state budget.

O’Reilly dismissed the idea.

“That’s Republican rhetoric. They think tax cuts will save the world,” he said. “We can’t do this on the cheap. If we want good education, cut out the garbage they keep mandating and pay teachers a good salary. Then we can demand excellence.”

A parent leader also expressed support for better salaries for teachers.

“It would help bring in better teachers. Their status in the community is well worth twice what they’re paid,” said Yoby Alexander, president of the PTO at the Davenport School of the Arts. “Funding is of the utmost importance. The lottery replaces (state) funds, and that’s not a good system.”

Alexander, a political independent, said she is in favor of rewarding superior teachers, as long as they are not evaluated on the basis of FCAT scores alone.

“I struggle with basing teachers’ salaries solely on test scores. Some children do not do well on tests,” she said.

One of Polk’s top teachers tended to side with Sink rather than Scott. Wendi Wooddell, who teaches English at Winter Haven High School and was the 2009-2010 Teacher of the Year for Polk County, said she is not particularly sold on either candidate but that Scott “has a more simplistic view of education.”

Wooddell, a registered Republican, said she has some lingering resentment toward the Republican Party over Senate Bill 6, the legislation passed in March but vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist, which would have eliminated teacher tenure and tied teachers’ raises to FCAT scores.

“So much of a kid’s future depends on that one test. What if he has a bad day? Kids are so much more than their test scores,” she said. “Tenure is a union thing. That’s not what bothers us. It’s being evaluated on something that’s out of our control.”

Teacher Groups

The state teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, has endorsed Sink, and, not surprisingly, the head of the local teachers’ union did not have much good to say about Scott, pointing to his support for SB 6.

“We’re tired of our children and our profession being used as a political football. … Throughout the whole reform process, teachers’ voices have not been heard,” said Marianne Capoziello. “Alex Sink has consistently said the stakeholders should be involved in the process. (She) has always been a champion of public education.”

short on specifics

Polk’s next superintendent was cautious in her assessment of the candidates. Sherrie Nickell, currently associate superintendent of the Polk County School District, who will succeed Gail McKinzie as superintendent in November, said she liked Sink’s emphasis on strengthening pre-K programs.

“She clearly has grasped the concept that investing in early childhood education is crucial for the state. Quality pre-K – that’s very important,” she said.

However, Nickell noted that such an effort would come with “a hefty price tag,” and said she did not see how Sink would pay for it.

She also said there is “not much to argue with” on Sink’s views on boosting teacher salaries and called her proposal for a statewide system to detect potential school dropouts “very interesting.” But as with the pre-K proposal, Nickell said she is uncertain how Sink would find the funds necessary to carry out her plan.

“I need to hear more about that,” she said.

Nickell said she thinks Scott’s plan is short on specifics, “and that is troubling.”

One of Scott’s proposals would make it possible for a student to go from kindergarten through 12th grade by taking classes online without ever setting foot in a classroom.

“Kids today have access to computers, they’re using computers. … If you look at how companies are training people differently, shouldn’t our kids have that same benefit?” Scott said while announcing his education plan.

Wooddell, the Winter Haven teacher, had a problem with that approach.

“I just think about all the teachers who influenced me. Nobody’s going to thank a computer. I’m sitting in this classroom because Mrs. Barbara Clark taught me AP English at Haines City High School,” she said.

MURKY DETAILS

In the end, the two candidates’ campaign ads may have left more people in the dark than elucidating their views. Rosalie Huston of Lakeland, who declined to give her age, said she is now retired but used to work for Scott’s former corporation, HCA, as a laboratory technician at Osceola Medical Center in Kissimmee.

“He’s a businessman. My question is, what does he know about politics?” she said.

A companion, Louis Caravalho, 71, a retired chef, said he is leaning toward Sink but found it hard to believe either candidate.

“I’d like them to tell us a little more about what they’re going to do rather than pick at each other,” he said.

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