By Lori Horvitz and John Kennedy
Sentinel Staff Writers

First Orlandosentinel Online. April 9, 2002

Report blasts Florida on education system

The state's largest business association, disregarding an appeal by Gov. Jeb Bush that it change its conclusions, issued a harshly worded report saying that Florida's education system has failed both students and industries.

The 75-page report released Monday was by the Florida Chamber of Commerce's research foundation. The chamber argues the state's education system is in a sad state compared with others in the nation, with poorly funded public schools, a lagging number of high-school graduates and a dismal record of college students earning four-year degrees.

Researchers for the Florida Chamber Foundation said the report signals an ominous warning about the future of the state's economy and its battle with other states to attract high-paying jobs.

"Florida's education system is not preparing the state's youth for the challenges of the next decade," researchers wrote in the report titled "New Cornerstones."

Though Bush was governor for just two of the 10 years covered in the study, the report could prove incendiary this election year. Bush, running for re-election as the self-proclaimed "education governor," was leery enough of the findings to force a delay in the document's release.

The governor's office earlier this year was given a courtesy copy of the report before the planned release. Bush staff members pored over the document, leaving margin notes on nearly every one of the report's 75 pages, challenging many of its conclusions.

In the end, though, few significant changes were made to the document. And the delay forced the report's release three days after a disastrous special session on education in which Bush failed to pass his overhaul of the state's school code.

Maureen Dinnen, president of the state teachers union, said the report proves education is not a top priority of Florida's leaders.

"Class sizes are getting larger. Teacher pay is lagging," said Dinnen of the Florida Education Association. "It's time we put our money and our effort where our mouth is. We're not going to have a world-class system until we make that investment."

The report takes a 10-year look at Florida's education system from 1991 to 2001, comparing the state's current education system to how it looked 10 years ago -- long before Bush took office. Among the findings:

From 1991 to 2000, the percentage of adults with a high-school diploma increased from 80 percent to 84 percent, but Florida's rank slipped from 27th to 34th compared to other states.

The percentage of adults with college degrees grew from 19.5 percent to 22.8 percent, but the state's rank fell from 32nd to 37th.

The high-school graduation rate dropped from 61 percent in 1990 to 56 percent in 1999, while the state's rank increased from 47th to 45th, according to the federal Department of Education. The Florida Department of Education, which adjusts its figures to account for students who move around a lot, reported that 60 percent of students complete high school in four years, while 65 percent finish school in five years. Even with the adjustments, the state still falls behind most states.

In 2000, Florida ranked 11th in terms of the number of associate degrees -- a two-year college program. However, the state rated 44th for the number of four-year degrees earned and 40th for the number of science and engineering doctoral degrees earned. The numbers come from public and private institutions.

Florida ranks 27th nationally in patents issued in 1997, with one patent issued per 3,000 workers. Both California and New York produce twice as many patents as Florida.

"The governor readily acknowledges there is work yet to be done, but it took us at least a generation and a half of neglect to yield the results of the Cornerstone report, and it will take another half a generation to turn it around," Bush spokeswoman Liz Hirst said in a statement Monday.

Jane McNabb, the chamber foundation's executive vice president, said the organization representing the most of the state's businesses, is encouraged by Bush's education-reform package enacted in 1999.

"I think the initiatives will have a positive impact on the state's education system, but this isn't something that changes overnight," she said.

But the report concludes the state must spend more money on public schools.

This year's state budget earmarks $14.6 billion for Florida's public schools. Bush has proposed $1 billion more for education in his budget recommendation to lawmakers, but much of that funding would only replace the $700 million cut from public schools and universities last fall by the Legislature.

The chamber report estimates that Florida would have to spend $2.7 billion in public schools alone to bring state spending on education in line with the 2001 national average.

Among the only clear concessions to Bush were in the area of educational funding and expenditures. The report explains that Florida's education funding failed to keep up with inflation and student growth in the 1990s.

But chamber officials acknowledged the governor's request that the study factor in the effect of the Legislature having reduced contributions by school districts to the Florida Retirement System. The change has allowed school districts to steer hundreds of millions of dollars away from pension-fund contributions into classrooms, teacher salaries and other administrative expenses, Bush says.

Bill Kelly, Volusia County's chief finance officer, said the practice is dangerous.

"They are putting districts in the position of suffering significant financial losses should the state have to increase the retirement-contribution rates in the future," Kelly said. "When we see the rates start to go back up, are they going to show that as a funding decrease?"