Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Fresh start for Miami-Dade, Broward schools

As public school students return to class this week, there’s the usual excitement and trepidation of what’s to come. This year, in particular, the challenges are great.

At the state level, the more rigorous Common Core standards will replace the FCAT by next year to gauge students’ knowledge. After several years of confusion over Florida’s school-grading system, this year should offer schools a respite from the FCAT to transition to the new standards, which are being implemented by states across the nation.

Still, Common Core has become controversial among the tea party faithful who have an irrational fear that the standards are an attempt to nationalize what historically has been a state mission: public education. Yet the consensus from conservative education reformers like Jeb Bush and progressives in the Obama administration is that state-by-state standards don’t deliver results. Some states aren’t as rigorous in their standards as, say, Florida, which has been a leader in reform.

And in the global economy, national education standards make sense if American students are to compete successfully.

At the local level, Broward schools should have fixed the bus system to ensure students get picked up on time. In Miami-Dade, meanwhile, there’s angst that county government plans to close public libraries because of a budget hole. Mayor Carlos Gimenez first proposed raising the tax rate designated solely for public libraries to keep all of them open, but constituents and a majority of county commissioners balked. With the county’s job market still teetering and the unemployment rate still too high, it’s tough to expect taxpayers to give more.

To the mayor’s credit, his administration has been working diligently with community partners — among them, the Miami-Dade public school system, public colleges and universities, the Early Learning Coalition, neighborhood groups and the nonprofit fundraising Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Library — to make the libraries as accessible as possible. Instead of closing 22 of the county’s 49 public libraries, as was first proposed last month, the administration has come up with a way to shut down only four libraries that have other branches nearby.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has pledged to open five school libraries to the public at educational technical centers serving working class neighborhoods. More might follow. That’s the type of creative thinking and partnerships that need to continue.

The Gimenez administration renegotiated rent payments at some branches, saving $2.4 million, and eliminated some offices at the Main Library downtown to keep neighborhood branches open. The county also plans to open centers at 11 parks that will offer Internet access.

To keep more libraries open, operating hours will have to be cut back but should focus on times of day with the greatest use.

The county’s options are indeed limited because the financing for libraries comes from a separate library property tax. The mayor cannot dip into the general revenue fund to pay for libraries — at least not under the current structure. This is one area where community partners must continue to focus.

Libraries are a cornerstone of education, but their use has dropped precipitously in some neighborhoods, particularly where people have computers at home. In poor neighborhoods, where the digital divide remains, it’s paramount to ensure access to libraries and the Web. This new plan begins to meet that goal.

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