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Florida, Microcosm of Nation's Schools


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we'll talk to a woman about the high price of friendship. Well, one friendship anyway. She cosigned a loan for a friend who was struggling. Now she is struggling with the consequences. We'll have more on that and we'll also tell you some things you might want to think about to protect your own credit score. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we are excited about a special broadcast. It is tomorrow and it is our first ever Twitter education forum. We're heading to Miami for a live broadcast and Twitter chat, and you've actually already started the conversation on #NPREdChat. We've heard from hundreds of people, including a superintendant in Texas and teachers in Louisiana, Indiana and Nebraska. This is just one of the people we've heard from.

NANCY EVANS: Hi. My name is Nancy Evans and I am a scientist and committed educator living in the western suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We know most schools are funded through property taxes. Can we find alternative funding for our schools in poor locales?

MARTIN: Tomorrow we are going to ask our guests, who include top national policymakers, advocates and educators and students to weigh in on this and other issues, but in advance of our trip, we wanted to find out more about the education landscape in Florida, where we're headed, so we're joined now by John O'Connor. He is a reporter with StateImpact Florida - that's NPR's local journalism initiative - and our partner in this broadcast. John has been reporting on education issues throughout the Sunshine State and he's with us now from Tampa.

John, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

JOHN O'CONNOR, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Now, another journalist told us that Florida is a Petri dish for education reform. Why do people say that?

O'CONNOR: Well, Florida's got a long history of kind of being at the forefront of education issues, but it really changed when Jeb Bush took office as governor back in the late '90s. He made education a top issue. He really pushed for a lot of innovations, things that you're seeing across the country now, like assigning schools simple easy-to-understand grades and report cards so that parents and students can understand how well those schools are performing, and so he's really the guy that changed the focus on education in Florida and then has also pushed it to other states around the country.

MARTIN: Now, Miami is not just one of the largest school districts in the state. It's also one of the largest urban school districts in the country. What are some of the biggest things you hear from parents, teachers and students there?

O'CONNOR: It's funny. Florida has a split between a lot of rural districts and a lot of urban districts, you know, Orange County and Orlando and Tampa and Miami. And so in each of those districts, they all have kind of their own issues. In a lot of places, the focus is on reading, particularly in the Tampa Bay area. In Miami you've got a lot of multilingual education issues. You have students who are coming from different countries, trying to learn English, trying to get caught up in school.

And so that's the really interesting thing about Florida, is just the mix and diversity of all the school districts and the different issues they're facing.

MARTIN: So you're really hearing it all.

O'CONNOR: Yeah, we are. And again, because Florida's at the forefront of a lot of these issues, things like teacher evaluations and how to figure out how well these particular teachers are doing with their students, we really hear every kind of issue that's coming down the pipe in education these days.

MARTIN: You know, one of the big issues that we've been getting a lot of questions about on our NPR ed chat has been how to integrate social media and technology in the classroom. Your team has been looking at K12. That's the nation's largest online school and there have been questions about whether the teachers are properly certified and so forth.

What are some of the things that you've found?

O'CONNOR: Well, we found a school district in central Florida, Seminole County, that found emails between company officials and teachers that suggested that the company was not using teachers that were properly certified, either Florida certified or certified to teach the subjects that they were instructing classes in.

And so the school district has asked the Florida Department of Education to investigate whether or not that's happening. In fact, one of those emails - a teacher responded to the company, saying, look, you've given me more than 100 names here and I only actually taught about a half dozen of these students.

It's an issue that's been happening around the country, according to researchers. Part of the problem is, is that school districts aren't even looking into kind of the practices here to double-check the company. We surveyed a lot of Florida school districts who said that they had never really gone back to make sure that the teachers who were listed as teaching the courses actually were teaching the courses.

Another issue that education researchers say is that the growth in these online courses is expanding much faster than lawmakers or policymakers or school boards can change the policy to set out how it should be done.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are headed to Florida tomorrow for our special broadcast. It's our Twitter Education Forum. I'm checking in with education reporter John O'Connor of StateImpact Florida. We're getting a preview of some of the issues he's been covering.

Election Day obviously is just around the corner and we're talking about a lot of issues, and education increasingly has started to come up in the debates and in public conversations. Are there local issues, education issues in Florida, that are getting the kind of traction that kind of education more broadly is starting to get in the national debate? Are there some specific education issues that you think might be influencing how people are looking at this election?

O'CONNOR: Yeah. One that's really interesting is the debate about Pell grants at the federal level because Florida students are more dependent on Pell grants than just about any other state. And so...

MARTIN: Pell grants are?

O'CONNOR: Pell grants are scholarships for low income students. They are totally needs-based, not dependent on grades or anything like that, and they fund up to about $5,500 of tuition at colleges. And again, Florida students are more dependent on them and so any cuts to that program would disproportionately affect Florida students.

We're also seeing some debate on property tax issues here in the form of constitutional amendments, and you played the comment earlier about funding schools through property taxes. Well, some of these amendments school officials believe would maybe more disproportionately hurt rural districts which depend more on property taxes than on urban districts. They're also concerned that it might hinder their ability to raise revenue through property taxes and so they might have to cut their budgets.

MARTIN: What effect are people saying - are analysts saying this could have on the race? Is there a sense that some people are more interested in this than others, that it would bring out certain, you know, highly motivated voters, or what? What is the sense that this could affect voting in Florida overall?

O'CONNOR: Yeah. It's hard to say who benefits more, but political scientists we've - Susan MacManus at the University of South Florida notes that both sides will use these issues to motivate their voters and so it's difficult to say who's going to benefit more, but they're both using this as a tool to get out voters.

MARTIN: You know, as I mentioned - that we've started a conversation on NPREdChat. Has it been a helpful reporting tool for you?

O'CONNOR: Oh, it's been fantastic. Actually, it's gotten the Florida reporters a lot more connected than we had been. We all knew each other, but now we're - you know, through this NPREdChat hash tag we're all communicating a lot more, so it's been great.

MARTIN: John O'Connor is a reporter with StateImpact Florida. That's NPR's local journalism initiative and he was kind enough to join us from member station WUSF. That's in Tampa, Florida.

John O'Connor, thanks so much for joining us.

O'CONNOR: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: And, please remember to tune into TELL ME MORE tomorrow for our special broadcast. It's our Twitter Education Forum where you might run into Isa Adney(ph), who recently tweeted...

ISA ADNEY: Students, you must have a reason to complete your degree. In the end, educational pursuits have to be personal. To find your reason for education, discover where your talent and passion intersects with economic need.

MARTIN: And you can join the conversation now on Twitter at #NPREdChat. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.