MAXWELL:  A dangerous indifference

11/4/1995- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Public education in Florida is at a crossroads. While the world is calling for increasingly sophisticated technologies and is seeking people who can read, compute and think competently, we are maintaining a system that routinely turns out ill-prepared graduates.

We are jeopardizing the future. The bad news is unending. Most recently, for example, Commissioner of Education Frank T. Brogan released the names of 164 of the state’s 2,400 schools that are “critically low performing” based on test scores during the last two years. Another report indicates that 62.6 percent of all students entering Florida’s 28 community colleges in 1994-95 had to take at least one remedial course after failing a college placement test. This crisis costs taxpayers $51.4-million annually.

The lack of parental involvement and dysfunctional families notwithsanding, so many schools are ineffective because our leaders have lost sight of the state’s obligation to teach children. This abnegation of responsibility is the direct result of selfishness and misplaced priorities. Not too long ago, the commissioners of education and the superintendents, although good old boys, understood the need to protect the best interests of the school districts. Disregarding political affiliation, they fought for books and supplies and equipment, for better facilities and for safe buses. Some even defended the rights of teachers and salary increases for them.

But this was before the priorities of our leaders became skewed, before the schools were given a backseat to prison construction, before parents stopped giving a damn about their children’s learning. And now, as state and district budgets shrink, the schools are being starved.

Real enlightenment and caring have fallen victim to the bottom line and indifference. Voters have lost faith, as demonstrated in routine rejections of referendums to raise taxes for education. Schools now have to scrounge to deliver the most basic of services.

To raise money, the Osceola County School Board, for instance, is considering letting schools sell ad space in hallways, auditoriums and cafeterias to major firms such as Coke, Pepsi or Walt Disney. According to the company that created the idea, a school that displays 30 ads, some as large as 4 feet by 8 feet, could earn up to $16,000 a year. Many parents and teachers are rightly appalled at such commercialization in the schools. But the district, like others, is hurting for cash.

Many classrooms statewide do not have paper, chalk or erasers. For many years now, teachers quietly have bought school supplies out of their own pockets, literally underwriting costs that the districts should shoulder. And what do teachers get for their sacrifice? A lot of hard work and very few “thank-yous.”

This was not always the case, however. Before political cynicism seeped into education, teachers were a respected class. Parents gave them permission to discipline their children. They could console children without fear of wearing a scarlet letter. They could award tough grades and demand that parents come in for conference. And taxpayers were less willing to let disruptive students prevent everyone else from learning.

But those days are gone, changed by clashing ideologies, political agendas, religious dogma and other elements that have nothing to do with education. Teachers, the vital link in education, are demonized all around. They have become convenient scapegoats for problems over which they often have little or no control.

Education in Florida may worsen because Brogan, an inflexible ideologue, has politicized the education commissioner’s office more than his predecessors. And while he talks reform, he constantly undercuts teachers. He needs to spend less time with his GOP pals and more time with teachers and their representatives.

The problems in the schools are old and systemic, and merely being tough and going after so-called “sacred cows,” as Brogan brags, will not help.

Brogan must use his office to guarantee that all Florida children get the best education possible. This is his professional and moral obligation.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.