MAXWELL:  Daydreams no help to schools

3/11/1995- Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


If you believe the fusilade of education hype discharging from Tallahassee, you expect Florida to become a Lake Wobegon community where all public school children are above average _ and God only knows what else.

For his part, Education Commissioner Frank Brogan, a Republican, is proposing statewide tests that not only will be tougher than those in use now but will accurately measure whether students have learned what they should have learned in each grade. The commissioner wisely wants fifth-graders to have fifth-grade reading, writing and math skills before leaving elementary school. Middle-school pupils should have appropriate skills for that level. And before getting a diploma, 12th-graders not only should possess 12th-grade skills, but they also should be prepared to attend college or take a job without remediation.

Then enters House Speaker Peter Wallace, a Democrat, whose Lake Wobegon dreams rival those of Brogan. To ensure that public school students will be above average _ and be able to pass the tough tests that Brogan wants to implement _ Wallace envisions reducing class sizes in grades 1 through 3 to 20 pupils. He wants every child to have a textbook to bring home each night. And he wants parents to choose which schools their children attend _ as long as it doesn’t create racial imbalances.

These are classic utopian ideas, reflecting the status quo of Garrison Keillor’s mythic little town that time forgot. But unlike Lake Wobegon, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking and money is plentiful, the Sunshine State is managed, not by paragons of wisdom, virtue, courage and benevolence, but mostly by lapdogs, anti-intellectuals and tightwads.

Speaker Wallace does not tell us how he will pay for his proposals, but we know he is sincere and that he truly cares about education. For each student to have a book to bring home, for example, an additional $18-million more a year must be found, and to reduce class sizes, he will need another $36-million for the first year alone. Unfortunately, he will have to try to persuade a myopic Legislature to make an additional investment in public education.

Perhaps the money will come from the staff cuts and deregulation that Brogan is proposing for the Education Department. But how could it when the commissioner himself wants $239-million more for schools next year than Gov. Lawton Chiles proposed? Now Chiles is talking about calling a special session of the Legislature later this year to come up with more money for education. An obvious question is why doesn’t the governor make education a top priority in the regular legislative session that opened Tuesday?

We all know how to make the state’s public school children above average: We need sufficient cash, competent, courageous leadership and basic academic and moral instruction. Anything less is a lie.

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