Drawing a line on development

Orange County Chairman Mel Martinez has decided to follow the spirit of Florida's 1985 Growth Management Act -- largely ignored in recent years -- which seeks to keep development from occurring in ways that cause roads, parks, schools, police protection and other services to deteriorate. Martinez recently told county planners to figure school crowding into zoning and land-use changes. It's a wise step. Why?

When it comes to education, everyone in America is concerned. Education tops the list of voter priorities for campaign 2000. Seventy-nine percent of our citizens say that pledges of "improving education and the schools" would influence their vote for president.

Furthermore, according to a survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government, three out of four Americans say they would raise their taxes $200 a year to pay for specific improvements in their local schools. Fifty-five percent say they would go up to $500!

Improving education is a worthy ideal. But it never seems to get done.

In 1989, President Bush and the nation's governors set six educational goals for the year 2000. In 1994, with President Clinton's endorsement, Congress adopted them, adding two more. The laudable aims: By 2000, all children will start school ready to learn; 90 percent will graduate from high school; all will be competent in English, math, science, foreign languages, civics, economics, the arts, history and geography; the United States will be first in math and science; all adults will be literate; no school will have drugs, violence, firearms or alcohol; teachers will have needed skills; and all schools will get parents involved.

We have flunked every category. The reasons are legion. One is because while everyone has a "concern," it seems that everyone also has a "theory." We zigzag from one pedagogic fad to another. From phonics to whole language and back to phonics again; from old math to new math, to whole math; from English-only to bilingual to "language immersion." Years of contentious debate have proved only one thing: We really don't know what works and what doesn't.

Will vouchers turn education around for the underprivileged and undertaught? We don't know. Should we be getting back to the basics, preparing students for jobs or college, or should we be developing their characters so they can make responsible decisions as adults? You decide. Can children from poor communities even be educated, or can they only be warehoused until they drop out? Longer school years? Later starting times? Tracking? Extended days? School uniforms? Social promotion? Less homework? More?

In fact, over all the years of experimentation, few verifiable studies of educational philosophies have been carried out. So what we think we do know generally comes from anecdotal evidence or statistically small samples -- which means we often subject our student populations to radical and untested ideas.

There is, however, one area in which scientific research has proven conclusively to have improved test scores and educational performance. Controlled studies done in Tennessee in the late 1980s show that students assigned to smaller classes not only get better grades, they are also more likely to graduate from high school and apply to college.

So another reason we have not met our education goals is our grossly inadequate funding for school building and repairs. The result? Overcrowded classrooms.

In Orange County there is an immediate need for $2.2 billion for new school construction and retrofit. The shortfall for the years 2000-2004 is $1.4 billion. We need 28 new schools over the next five years and can build only 20. That means one needed high school, two middle schools and five elementary schools cannot be built. Notwithstanding the notion that people say they are willing to spend the money, presumably those people don't live in Central Florida. Local tax increases for education have been turned down six times since 1982. Most recently, it was the proposed penny sales tax that fell to the wayside.

If local citizens won't pay for more schools to accomplish smaller classes, even after knowing they are necessary to fulfill our goals, we must at least not make matters worse by allowing runaway growth that strains our already dangerously jammed schools.

Smaller classes work. They won't solve all our education problems, but they will help stem the tide of deteriorating performance levels. And though the developers may howl, Chairman Martinez and the Orange County Commission should stand firm on this particular worthy goal. The good news: It won't even cost us a penny.

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