Dumping more kids into classes won't help

EducationSchoolsHigh SchoolsSportsMiddle Schools

Mediocrity is creeping up on Lake County schools again.

Principals across the county have dumped as many as five more kids into each classroom because they don't have the money to hire enough teachers.

Since 2002, class sizes have been dropping because the state ordered districts to reduce the number of kids in each room.

There is a method to this madness. You ever try to control 25 third-graders by yourself? What goes on in classrooms today is unthinkable by the standards of the average 70-year-old Lake County retiree.

Kids bring a myriad of problems with them, ranging from growly stomachs that had no breakfast to psychotropic meds that they have to swallow at the right times during the day or things get ugly.

Dad drinks, mom has a different boyfriend sleeping at the house every weekend, the older brother is dealing drugs, a sister is mentally ill, nobody cooks or eats a regular meal any more and homework is not at the top of the priority list.

Oh, it's Fun City when those kids — and there are increasing numbers — get in the classroom.

By 2010, Florida school districts have to cap classes at 18 students in elementary, 22 in middle school and 25 in high school or face big financial penalties.

That's reasonable.

But now, thanks mostly to funding cuts, the trend is in class size going the other way — up. Just what we need.

Clermont Middle School got slammed the worst — teachers were forced to take on an extra five kids in the core classes of science, language arts and math. Others got smaller increases, but increases just the same.

The state Legislature can talk all the trash it wants about supporting education and setting high standards. It will never happen until the culture of this county — and all of Florida, for that matter — changes dramatically.

Regardless of what we say, education is not a priority. We've simply been unwilling to pay for it. We'd rather fund government. State government took a relatively light hit in last year's budgeting compared with schools.

Recently, some friends in Leesburg were talking about the school their grandson attends in Pennsylvania. The boy is 14 and is on the school's swim team. You know that sport — it's the one that requires a pool. Up north, you have to put those puppies inside a building, unless you are teaching polar bears to swim.

In Lake County, where pools don't need to be inside, none of the high schools has a pool. Swim teams have to beg and borrow. Heck, this is a place where we have been known to build schools without lockers to save money. What a great "savings" — literally on the backs of students.

The Tax Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group that analyzes taxes across the nation, ranks Florida 47th in taxes. In other words, the residents of only three other states pay less than we do per capita. The state of Maryland ranks fourth.

The reason I bring up Maryland is that the state is widely thought to have the best public education system in the nation. Two independent studies published earlier this year pushed the state from third to the top spot. The most substantial of the two, a study by Education Week, used accountability standards, student performance on standardized tests and readiness of high school graduates for college to help determine the rankings.

Those who say that money won't improve education are looking for an excuse to shortchange children. It will improve education — if it's spent right and there's accountability — and Maryland is proof.

Annual state education spending in Maryland is now $4.6 billion a year, up 80 percent from 2002. And local boards raised their spending on education 34 percent in that time. One of the studies shows that for each extra $1,000 spent per pupil, the achievement rate rose by 4 percent at the elementary level and by 8 percent in middle school.

A big chunk of Maryland's money — $1.8 billion — went to salaries and benefits for teachers. School districts added about 10,900 new staffers during that time, and 8,300 of those were teachers.

In Florida, the average teacher salary is $43,304; in Maryland, $54,333. The 2008 graduation rate in Lake was 77 percent; in Maryland, 85.5 percent.

The conclusions are inescapable: Education and excellent teachers are valued in the state with the nation's best public schools. People there are willing to pay for it.

Meanwhile, back at the Lake ranch, Leesburg and Eustis high schools, both shamefully rated "D," had an average of three more students dumped into each core class. That ought to make it easier for the teacher to help struggling students, eh?

Perhaps the culture in Florida never will change enough so that swimming pools in high schools are simply an accepted part of education.

Surely, however, we can do better than slamming the education engine into reverse.

Lauren Ritchie can be reached at Lritchie@orlandosentinel.com You may leave her a message at 352-742-5918. Her blog is online at http://www.orlandosentinel.com/laurenonlake.

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