In truth, the whole country has slipped badly in educating its youth. But as with so many other things here, Florida seems to have taken a bad American situation and made it worse - a national snapshot blown up bigger than life.
Determined to get behind all the talk, we at Florida Trend decided to throw our resources into an investigation of the state's education system. Over the past year, Senior Editor Phillip Longman studied education in Florida, determined to delineate the vast and complex issues and to seek out solutions. The challenge demanded that we take the unusual step of devoting nearly the entire issue to the single subject.
(Some regular departments were sacrificed to the cause and will return in October.)
What did we find? After decades of denial, virtually every major interest group, from teachers to business groups, agrees that the system needs to be changed. A major statewide business organization, the Council of 100, has made improving education its highest priority. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has created the WorldClass schools program, which goes to different districts around the state to engage the local business community in reforming the public education system.
These are important and valuable because they reflect a swell of justifiable concern. We need it, but it's not enough.
As this issue's cover line says, the education system - from K-12 through the universities - has reached a turning point. Forces outside the system are pressing change, most particularly the economy. Today's work place demands more and different skills than ever before, skills not on the curriculum of the typical public school. As Florida is finding out, such a dated school system handicaps the entire society: businesses and universities must re-educate high school graduates, wages dramatically lag behind the national average, ambitions and hopes become bridled, futures dim and the best and brightest go elsewhere.
To be sure, there are startling exceptions to this grim assessment. Thanks to some inspired principals and teachers who make a difference, most cities have school programs or at least individual classes that would be outstanding anywhere. But these special situations are not spawned by the system but exist in spite of it.
As David Poppe's reporting from Broward County makes clear, the state's county-wide boards of education are doomed to fail. It's a system that incredibly dates back to the 19th century; in 1968, county-wide boards were reaffirmed when the state constitution was rewritten to spread benefits more evenly among schools in differing economic and racial areas.
A noble goal and probably justified back then. But today, after decades of explosive population growth in many counties, these sprawling school districts have become vast bureaucracies. They are remote and removed from parents and vulnerable to special interest groups, such as builders and developers seeking huge school construction contracts. Broward alone has an annual budget approaching $2 billion.
Since his election last fall, State Education Commissioner Frank Brogan has become a state crier, sounding the alarm for a system he correctly perceives as an anachronism. Brogan often observes that the high school dropout rate in the 1950s actually was higher than it is today. But he hastens to add that back in those days, you didn't need a high school diploma to get a well-paid union job. Today's dropouts, by contrast, are tomorrow's problems: they will find only low-paying, unskilled jobs. The prisons are jammed with lost young souls, many of whom were sentenced back in school to failure by the system.
But what is more troubling is that many of those who manage to get through high school are only slightly better off. They graduate poorly educated, lacking the skills to work or to go to college. Community colleges and universities are left to clean up the mess, which detracts from their effectiveness.
Not surprisingly, with K-12 in such bad shape, higher education has become, as the title of the report on page 60 states, "a system at risk." Even as its funding is curtailed and its facilities strained, the university system faces a flood of high school graduates in the next decade, many of them ill-prepared for what should be the challenge of higher education.
What can be done? Later this year, Commissioner Brogan plans to convene an education summit to discuss ways to improve K-12 education in Florida. Blueprint 2000, the public school reform plan enacted by the Legislature in 1991, will be the centerpiece of discussions. But that measure, which does not hold teachers and principals accountable, is really a modest effort. The entrenched bureaucracy has embraced Blueprint 2000 in hopes of holding off the inevitable. But as the story on page 48 notes, the education establishment is like ex-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, who used perestroika in a vain effort to save communism.
I think when you read Florida Trend's report you will agree that it's time for revolutionary change. Two dramatic departures from the status quo that must be explored are charter schools and vouchers (see page 44). Other ideas should be welcomed.
It won't be easy because things have been the way they are for a very long time. School reformers like to roll out Rip Van Winkle to illustrate the immutability of Florida's school bureaucracy. They say if old Rip woke up today, he would be staggered by the changes he sees - until he visited his old grammar and high schools, where he would find that nothing much has changed.