Lawmakers approve multi-pronged education bill
awmakers approved a giant, multi-pronged education package Monday that backers cheered as an education game-changer and critics called manipulative and detrimental to public schools.
The 278-page bill eliminates a section of Florida’s often-criticized, 2011 teacher merit-pay law, changes standardized testing rules, mandates recess for elementary school children, expands a controversial teacher bonus program and provides new bonuses for most teachers for the next three years.
It also provides financial incentives for successful charter schools to open in neighborhoods with struggling traditional public schools and demands that school districts share some tax money with charters, among many other changes.
The bill was released late Friday, meshing together and replacing a host of other education proposals. Legislative leaders tentatively agreed to the package as part of their behind-closed-doors budget negotiations, and, as a budget bill, it could be only voted up or down Monday, not amended.
In the House, where it passed 73 to 36, Republican leaders were pleased with the legislation. They took to Twitter on Monday to tout the package that gives young students a daily “free play” break and older students one less exam to tackle. “The House of Representatives cares about kids!” read a graphic on House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s account.
But in the Senate, the bill passed only narrowly, 20 to 18, with three Republicans voting against it. And even Republicans who voted for it said they weren’t completely happy with the House-dictated measure.
“Couldn’t we have hammered out some solutions that would’ve been kinder to our public school partners and not let the House make all these dramatic changes?” said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze.
Many critics of the legislation said some of the proposals — which touched on everything from school districts’ use of federal funds to youngsters’ use of sunscreen on campus — were worthwhile, but others would harm students and their schools.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, said a 20-subject bill needed far more time for discussion and debate. He voted no, saying it was not ready for approval.
“I can assure you, we’ll be back to fix it,” he said. “We’re going to have to fix it, this fall and next year.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, called the bill a “piece of junk” that needed to be voted down.
Many education advocates had urged lawmakers to vote against the measure, including the Florida PTA and the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers union. The union said legislators were “manipulating” the legislative process with a last-minute bill that “cynically ties” popular reforms to “yet another sketchy teacher bonus scheme and an education budget that won’t even come close to meeting the needs of our students.”
But House lawmakers defended the bill, arguing it was an effort to fund programs that work and reform a public education system that too often focused on bureaucracy rather than students, particularly those attending schools with D and F ratings.
“We are changing the game with these and dozens of other reforms,” wrote Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, and Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, two House education leaders, in the Saint Peters Blog on Monday, just ahead of the vote.
The bill, if approved by Gov. Rick Scott, will:
• Eliminate a requirement that student performance on state exams, crunched though a complicated “value-added model” or VAM, be used in teacher evaluations. Many Florida educators disliked that provision of the 2011 merit-pay law.
• Mandate that all traditional public elementary schools — charter schools are exempt — provide students with 20 minutes of recess a day.
• Make a number of changes to Florida’s testing system, including scrapping the state’s algebra 2 end-of-course exam, moving away from online testing and returning to paper-and-pencil exams, pushing back the start date for state testing and studying whether the ACT or SAT can be used in place of the state exams required for high school graduation.
• Create a “schools of hope” program to lure charter schools that have had success with students from low-income families to Florida neighborhoods with “persistently low-performing” traditional public schools — that is, those with D or F grades for three or more years in a row. And allow 25 of those struggling public schools to seek extra money to provide “wrap-around services” to their students to boost academic success.
• Require local school districts to share some of their school construction money with local charter schools, which are public schools run by private operators, and send more of their federal anti-poverty money directly to schools.
• Expand and alter the Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program, which rewards teachers partly on their old ACT or SAT scores. The revisions lower the score requirements in 2021, allow “best and brightest” teachers to earn $6,000 bonuses this year and allow principals to earn bonuses of $4,000 or $5,000.
• For the next three years, provide all “highly effective” teachers with a $1,200 bonus and all “effective” teachers with an $800 bonus, though that amount could be scaled back if there is not enough money to pay that much to all winners.
Walt Griffin, superintendent of the Seminole County school district, shared many educators’ views when he noted there was little time for anyone to digest all the bill’s elements, some of which he called helpful and others worrisome.
“It’s massive,” he said. “There are pros and cons. But they should be separate issues.”