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Florida Fails Children of Miami-Dade County

Share School Issues Center"Our anticipated gains in the number of foreign-born students alone will require us to build one elementary school a month just to keep up," Roger C. Cuevas, Miami-Dade County school superintendent, told Education World. But a Florida grand jury recently found that the state's formula that funds new school construction doesn't recognize the county's unique needs created by its large immigrant population. Legislators counter the grand jury's finding, questioning whether Miami-Dade has been wisely spending the money it gets from the state.

A Florida grand jury is accusing the state of breaking its own law by not providing enough money to educate its children properly. The accusations are detailed in a recently released report, Miami-Dade County's Public Schools: An Education in Differences, which cites Florida's inadequate funding as a "futile attempt to fit the number of students enrolled into [Miami-Dade County's] existing facilities as nothing less than shameful."


The 21-member grand jury said the state's formula for determining new school construction funding does not take into consideration the unique needs of Miami-Dade County, which has a rising population of immigrant families. The immigrant population increase has resulted in extreme overcrowding of the county's schools. About 41 percent of the county's schools are at 150 percent over capacity, according to Roger C. Cuevas, the Miami-Dade County school superintendent.

During the past six years, more than 88,000 immigrant students enrolled in Miami-Dade County public schools. Those students account for about 22 percent of the system's 360,000 students. Many of those students speak little or no English.

The county's school system ranks as one of the largest school systems in the country, with only those of New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago being larger, according to the grand jury report.

Each year since 1994, between 12,000 and 20,000 new foreign-born students have enrolled in the county's schools. "The point needs to be made that this has not been episodic," said Alberto Carvalho, public information officer for the Miami-Dade County public schools.


"All children have the right to receive a high-quality education," Carvalho told Education World. "Where they will fit is the question that has not been addressed."

Fitting all those new students into classrooms has resulted in tough decisions, Carvalho said. "Most principals have had to make difficult choices and have created two classrooms out of one. Principals have to be very creative to maximize the square footage in their schools. Some are even utilizing closets as classrooms."

The grand jury found that custodial closets, computer labs, teacher's lounges, book storage rooms, alcoves, and even locker rooms have been converted into classrooms. The grand jury also found the condition of many of the portable classrooms -- the county uses about 50,000 -- unacceptable. Those classrooms often smell of mold and have inadequate air-conditioning.

The grand jury report stated: "We left convinced that overcrowding has a severe, negative impact not just upon the ratio of teachers to students, but upon the entire educational environment our schools are able to provide." It cited the conditions as a factor that contributes to the county's growing teacher shortage.

The Miami-Dade County Board of Education agrees with the grand jury report and is currently exploring a recommendation to sue the state if the legislature does not provide adequate funding, Carvalho said.


The county has tried to meet the demands of its growing student population. In 1988, voters approved a $980 million bond issue to build new schools. Since then, the county has constructed 56 schools and 12 primary learning centers. The primary learning centers house children in grades kindergarten through 3, Carvalho said.

The building boom continues. Seven more schools and another primary learning center are under construction. Planned are two more new schools and five more primary learning centers.

It doesn't appear that the overcrowding situation will improve in the near future. Cuevas, the Miami-Dade superintendent, said in his state of the school system address last December that an additional 130,000 new students are expected to enroll in the county's schools within the next ten years. He anticipates being short 60,000 student stations within five years.

"Our anticipated gains in the number of foreign-born students alone will require us to build one elementary school a month just to keep up," he said.

Keeping up with the immigrant enrollment is costly. The grand jury estimated the county needs $1.3 billion to build new schools to meet its current enrollment demands. It characterizes the state's funding of $20.4 million for new schools as little more than a "drop in the bucket."


"The burden needs to go beyond the state," Carvalho said. Although the federal government provides Title I funds and ESOL funding, it doesn't address new school construction needs, he said.

The grand jury report recommends the entire legislature of Florida and its congressional delegation jointly present to Congress a nonpartisan initiative to obtain federal funding to address the impact of immigration upon Florida's public schools.

Currently, two bills are in Congress that propose additional funding to help states construct and modernize the nation's schools. A bipartisan bill, jointly proposed by Rep. Nancy L. Johnson (R-Connecticut) and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-New York), modeled after President Bill Clinton's school construction proposal, would lend $24.8 billion to states and school districts with interest-free, 15-year bonds. The bill, proposed on March 21, 2000, has 150 Democratic and Republican cosponsors.

Last month, Rep. Bill Goodling (R-Pennsylvania), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, along with five other Republicans, proposed a $1.5 billion Classroom Modernization Act that would provide limited federal funding for new schools and renovations. The Republican Party maintains that the primary responsibility for school construction remains at the state and local level, according to a press release from Goodling's office.


Even though the grand jury recommends another probe into whether the county spent government money appropriately, Florida's governor, Jeb Bush, and other critics say the grand jury did not go far enough to explore whether money was misspent. "It was extremely disappointing that the report didn't look at spending practices of the county," said Justin Sayfie, spokesman for Bush.

Miami-Dade County schools received significant increases in per-pupil spending, Sayfie said. "How can [grand jury members] know that not enough funds are received if they don't look at how funds are spent?" he asked.

Getting more money allocated by the legislature will be difficult unless questions about whether the county spent its money are resolved, said Florida state senator Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Miami). "The perception is that there are a lot of problems with how the government money was spent, and whether it is true or not, it needs to be explained," he said. "We need to deal with that, and local school systems have to help us by being more accountable."

Although the spending issue needs to be resolved, Diaz-Balart said, he agrees with the main points of the report: that immigration is here to stay, that it presents unique challenges to the county, and that the state formula to determine construction funding needs to be changed. He also credits the county for "working miracles" with its students. Student scores have improved overall, and 26 schools were removed from the state's "failing" list based on improved scores on state tests.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World

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