Florida Education Cuts: Three Perspectives School districts around the country are anxious to see whether Congress will send part of the economic stimulus plan their way. Some 29 states have had to cut school funding this year. Host Jacki Lyden checks in on one cash-strapped system — in Orange County, Fla., which includes Orlando. Officials there are planning to cut budgets by 10 percent next year — and are considering ideas as radical as a 4-day school week. Lyden talks with Superintendent Ronald Blocker; science teacher Richard Ellenburg; and a mother of two students, Stacey Rodrigues.
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Florida Education Cuts: Three Perspectives

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Florida Education Cuts: Three Perspectives

Florida Education Cuts: Three Perspectives

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Welcome back to All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. The total price tag for the economic stimulus bill the Senate takes on this week is nearing $900 billion and about one-sixth of that is targeted for education. Some Republicans are making that money a target.

During the House debate on the bill last week, Congressman Ander Crenshaw zeroed in on one specific area.

Representative ANDER CRENSHAW (Republican, Florida): When you do student special education, how does that quickly kick-start the economy?

LYDEN: Crenshaw is from Florida, and that's where we're heading now. Florida is one of 29 states that have had to cut school funding this year. And officials there expect next year to be worse.

In Orange County, which is where Orlando is, the school system is bracing for a cut of $100 million next year. That's about 10 percent of the district's entire budget. To see how these cuts might play out and what the stimulus could mean, we called on three locals.

Mr. RONALD BLOCKER (Superintendent, Orange County Public School): Ronald Blocker, Orange County Public School Superintendent.

Ms. STACEY RODRIGUES (PTA President, Orange County Council): Stacey Rodrigues, Orange County Council PTA President.

Mr. RICHARD ELLENBURG (Teacher, Orange County; 2008 Teacher of the Year, Florida): Rick Ellenburg, Orange Country teacher and Florida's 2008 Teacher of the Year.

LYDEN: I started by asking Superintendent Blocker how this budget crisis stacks up to those of past years.

Mr. BLOCKER: Well, these cuts are broader and deeper. The state of Florida has experienced revenue shortfalls in the past and - but they've always been discreet units, so to speak. It would happen one year and recover the next year.

In this particular case, in my 32 years of being a public educator, I have never experienced anything like this before.

LYDEN: So what are some of the things that you're doing to deal with this? What cuts are you considering?

Mr. BLOCKER: One of the things we're doing is I'm working with a community committee that's viewing a lot of controversial issues, a lot of sacred cows, and seeing if we can find some savings there. And that's covering everything from increasing class size to closing small schools. Some of our parents have even recommended that we go to a four-day school week to cut out transportation on the fifth day.

LYDEN: Hmm. Stacey Rodrigues, you're a parent of two students. You're helping review some of these options. What are you worried about specifically for your children? You have two daughters.

Ms. RODRIGUES: I'm worried that should these budget cuts happen, how it's going to affect what they're able to learn in the classroom. And by that I mean, all of a sudden you have 30 children in a classroom. You have teachers, because of budget cuts, aren't able to get the most updated training.

We want them to have the materials to not only educate our children but to engage them. We want these children to want to go to school.

LYDEN: Let's go into that classroom, Mr. Ellenburg, and bring you in here. We've had you on our program before because you were teacher of the year in Florida last year.

Mr. ELLENBURG: That's correct.

LYDEN: Would you take me into that fabulous science lab that you've got?

Mr. ELLENBURG: Sure. If you walk into my classroom, you'd probably hear rock tumblers tumbling as we're learning about erosion and the weathering of rocks and minerals.

I have rockets all over the classroom. We launch rockets and learn about force and motion with those things. And I've got every animal you could possibly imagine.

And then outside the classroom, I have an award-winning garden that was considered the 2005 School Garden of the Year.

LYDEN: Now, are you worried that this wonderful science lab might be - if not on the chopping block, then sort of getting chipped away at?

Mr. ELLENBURG: Well, absolutely. We've already been called in because we realize that the 10 percent cut in my particular school would definitely cut my science lab, and I would go into a regular classroom, and it would be dissolved.

We also would have to look at art, music, P.E. in our school. We've already lost our guidance counselor from the cuts from last year, as well as our assistant principal. We're a school of 720, so with the cuts we're looking at, it would be approximately six teaching positions in our school, plus we would have absolutely no money for any type of materials that we could possibly want.

LYDEN: So how many teachers are you worried you might have to cut, Mr. Blocker?

Mr. BLOCKER: Well, when we were $70 million short, we had to eliminate over 560 teaching positions. So this year, with $100 million, we may be eliminating, at the very least, a comparable number of positions.

LYDEN: It's a lot in one county.

Mr. BLOCKER: Yes. You ultimately have to ask yourself the question, are you here to educate or are you here to warehouse?

LYDEN: Superintendent Blocker, how does the federal economic stimulus plan factor in here? Will it be enough, or is it just a temporary threshold?

Mr. BLOCKER: The economic situation in the state of Florida is pretty dire, and I don't expect the federal stimulus plan to solve the problem. I think it will mitigate the damage where we may not be laying off as many teachers or cutting as many programs. But it clearly will not solve the problem.

LYDEN: Orange County Florida School Superintendent Ronald Blocker, thanks to you. And teacher Rick Ellenburg and parent Stacey Rodrigues, we appreciate you all joining us.

Ms. RODRIGUES: You're welcome, thank you.

Mr. ELLENBURG: You're welcome.

Mr. BLOCKER: Thank you.

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