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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Pasco County school district cuts 18 local tests

"This is not an April Fools joke."

That's how Pasco County testing director Peggy Jones began her memo to principals, in which she explained the elimination of 18 local end-of course exams -- just to be clear.

"In an effort to reduce some of the testing demands at the elementary level this year (2014-2015), we will eliminate the Comprehensive Performance-based Test in Grades K, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5." Jones wrote.

"In addition, we will eliminate the Special Area Tests in Art, Music, and PE for Grades K, 1, 3, and 4 (see attached table comparison).  In the Special Areas, Grades 2 and 5 were identified for continued testing, as some personnel may teach only students in primary grades or only students in intermediate grades (rather than all grades in the school). This will mean that the content areas where tests are being eliminated will now be a Principal Approved Test.   …

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How important is the validity of the Florida Standards Assessment?

Problems with the first round of computerized Florida Standards Assessments have led to questions about the test's validity and credibility.

The Florida House rejected efforts to pause school grades and other consequences associated with the tests despite these concerns.

The Florida Senate, by contrast, is poised to take the issue forward.

As the Senate prepares to debate SB 616 on the floor, members have filed more than a dozen amendments. One of the last ones comes from the bipartisan leadership team of Education chairman John Legg, Education Appropriations chairman Don Gaetz and Education vice chairman Bill Montford. And it gets right to the point.

Their amendment reads, in relevant part:

"An independent verification of the psychometric validity of the statewide, standardized assessments first implemented in 2014-2015 must be completed before the 2014-2015 school grades results may be published and before the student performance data resulting from such assessments may be used for purposes of instructional personnel and school administrator evaluations." …

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Florida House panel moves to shield university president applicants from Sunshine laws

Despite unanimous public opposition, the Florida House Education Committee has advanced a bill to exempt university and college president and provost searches from the state's Sunshine laws.

HB 223 would keep all applicants for the high profile jobs private while search firms or committees narrow the group to a finalist pool. That group of finalists would then be made public for a 30-day review period before a final selection.

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, called the measure a classic case of competing interests -- open records vs. the goal of getting the "most awesome, most profound leaders for our universities."

"We've heard praise for our existing presidents. I concur with that," Hager said. "The opposite question is, who did not apply?"

Bill sponsor Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, suggested that the public nature of presidential searches scares off potential leaders who do not want to have their job hunting publicized.

"If 100 apply, they know at the very best only one is getting the job," he said. "The rest will go back home."

Democrats on the committee joined university faculty members and union leaders against the bill. …

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Pasco teachers union files formal complaint over School Board agendas

United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship wants paper copies of the Pasco School Board's regular meeting agendas. In fact, Blankenship argues, the union is entitled to one.

Superintendent Kurt Browning considers providing the hundreds of pages of paper a "waste of taxpayer money," though. And he told Blankenship so at a recent board meeting -- about a week after informing the USEP via email that the twice-monthly agendas would come electronically from that time forward.

Undeterred, Blankenship this week filed a grievance with the board, claiming the administration had unilaterally altered the employee contract "by refusing to provide copies of the School Board Agenda and all supporting data in advance of each Board meeting. It has long been established that 'copies' in regard to this section of the contract have meant 'paper' copies."

The contract states: "A copy of the agenda and all supporting data will be provided to the Union by the Secretary of the Board. Said materials shall be sent to the Union office at the same time they are sent to the Board members." …

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Florida education news: Social media, guns, grade tampering and more

SOCIAL MEDIA: A committee of students and officials will help devise a social media usage policy for Hillsborough teachers.

GUNS: The Florida Senate Education Committee postpones action on a bill that would allow concealed weapons in schools.

GRADE TAMPERING: The Escambia school district investigates allegations of grade changes at two charter schools, the Pensacola News-Journal reports.

WHAT'S IN A NAME? Florida lawmakers consider requiring schools to change their names if they use the term "college," the Bradenton Herald reports. More from the News Service of Florida.

EARLY EDUCATION: Pre-school preparations get a push in Tallahassee unlike anything advocates have seen in years, the Sun-Sentinel reports.

LAWSUITS: A judge dismisses a Sarasota security firm's suit against Manatee schools over the cancellation of a contract, the Bradenton Herald reports.

SCHOOL VIOLENCE: A Miami high school is rocked by a campus stabbing, the Miami Herald reports.

CHARTER SCHOOLS: KIPP celebrates its fifth year in north Florida, the Florida Times-Union reports. • Florida lawmakers show unfair favoritism to charter schools, the Bradenton Herald editorializes. …

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Pasco Zephyrhills High drops its restroom escort policy

Under pressure from the Pasco school district administration, Zephyrhills High has dropped its controversial policy requiring students to get escorts to the restroom during class periods.

With the new procedures, students still may not get passes during the first and last 10 minutes of their classes. But no one will be denied access to the restroom otherwise: Students will have to show their planner or pass to hall monitors, and are expected to be courteous.

The administration and staff will continue to monitor the hallways during all class periods, as in the past.

Principal Andy Frelick came up with this new way to handle disciplinary troubles after meeting with some students, faculty and parents. He advised families of the changes in a phone alert this evening, district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said.

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Senate panel delivers blow to Florida school guns bill

A contentious proposal that would let designated teachers bring their guns to school suffered a serious setback Tuesday when a Senate panel declined to vote on it.

Because the Senate Education Committee won't meet again, the bill (SB 180) won't have another opportunity for a committee hearing. It could still be incorporated into another proposal, but Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he would raise strong objections.

"It would be a large lift knowing that the Education Committee [deferred] it," the Trinity Republican said.

Legg said he has "significant concerns" with the bill, which would allow school employees with law enforcement or military experience to carry concealed weapons on school property.

"Deputizing private citizens to protect a school is not an avenue I want to go down," he said.

Both the Senate and House are considering a separate proposal that would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college campuses (SB 176/ HB 4005).

The so-called campus carry bill has found support in both chambers. Legg says he supports the proposal because it is about "individual protection." …

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Bill to expand Florida school choice 'for the kids,' but faces adult issues

A measure to give Florida families more choices among public schools continued to surge forward in the state House on Tuesday. Representatives professed strong support for HB 1145, stressing the need to further empower children and their parents in finding the best education fit.

"Parents do know what is best for their child," said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. "Not government. Not bureaucrats."

The details that school districts would face in implementing the proposed changes, which include allowing student transfers across county lines, still matter, though. And if bill sponsor Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, can't resolve some of those concerns before the bill hits House Education, chairwoman Rep. Marlene O'Toole warned, "it will stop."

"I support the policy of this 150 percent," said O'Toole, R-Lady Lake. "This is just an administrative set of burdens that need to be worked out for other taxpayers. I believe in it, but we have some administrative stuff we need to fix."

Those issues, raised by representatives from Palm Beach and Orange county schools, included: …

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Changes in the works for Zephyrhills High restroom plan

Plans to curtail student restroom access during class time at Pasco County's Zephyrhills High School are up for an overhaul just days after officials implemented them. The concept ran afoul of superintendent Kurt Browning, who deemed the approach to controlling the hallways excessive. Many parents also complained.

Principal Andy Frelick met with select students on Friday, and staff members on Monday, before heading to the district office to update the top brass.

"It is with the safety and best interest of the students that we came up with the policy," Frelick told a parent via e-mail. "We will work to come up with a plan that can also ensure the safety and best interest of the students."

Kat Burgess, the school's United School Employees of Pasco building representative, expressed disgust that the superintendent would gut the principal's effort to clamp down on student misbehavior. She said the faculty have attempted in vain to get their school administration to handle student discipline better, only recently getting action. …

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Should Florida schools require uniforms?

When the Florida House K-12 committee first started talking about student uniforms as a safety measure, the issue appeared low on the priority list for counterparts in the Florida Senate. Senators were focusing on testing and technology.

As the legislative session nears the point where committees stop considering new bills, though, the two chambers remain far apart on testing proposals. And suddenly Senate Education chairman John Legg has amended his bill on school district improvement plans to include a whole section on student uniforms that's pretty close to the bill the House unanimously passed.

Legg's amendment doesn't include the $10-per-student piece that the House held out as an incentive. But it does the same thing otherwise, of allowing districts to create uniform standard attire "to provide a safe environment that fosters learning and improves school safety and discipline." …

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Florida education news: Arrests, one-room schoolhouse, art tests and more

YOUTH ARRESTS: Florida lawmakers move forward with a proposal to provide law enforcement officers with alternatives to arresting youthful offenders.

SUPERINTENDENTS: The Palm Beach school district releases a preliminary list of candidates for superintendent, WPTV reports.

ONE-ROOM SCHOOL: Manatee's Duette community will raise funds to support Florida's last remaining one-room schoolhouse, the Bradenton Herald reports.

ATTENDANCE BOUNDARIES: The Bay School Board selects a rezoning option among six choices, saying it's the least disruptive, the Panama City News Herald reports.

AIMING HIGH: Students from a struggling Volusia middle school visit Bethune-Cookman University to get a feel for college life, the Daytona Beach News-Journal reports.

TESTING: The Florida Department of Education is asking students to rate their online testing experience, the Orlando Sentinel reports. • Testing in non-standardized subjects like art proves elusive for Florida schools, the Gainesville Sun reports.

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To market, to market the Hillsborough schools

Hillsborough County School Board members will sit together three times on Tuesday: First to go over policy, then to discuss a marketing plan for the district, and finally for their recognition meeting.

All three events are open to the public.

The 9 a.m. workshop, generally held in a second floor conference room at school district headquarters in downtown Tampa, will give the board a chance to go over policy revisions. Topics include the athletic transfer policy, medical leave for employees, social media and wireless devices.

The social media policy seeks to clarify what teachers can and cannot do amidst an ever-changing landscape. They're being told, essentially, to use official district and school social media for any communication with their school communities. It should be professional and appropriate. Teachers' personal accounts should be off-limits to all current Hillsborough County Public School students.  …

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Opting out? National group is keeping tabs on the movement's strength

Florida school districts continue to administer the Florida Standards Assessments, and with each passing test period they receive letters from families that don't want their children to participate.

The Florida Department of Education isn't keeping track of the opt-outs. But United Opt Out, which had its national conference in Fort Lauderdale this year, is trying to map the opposition online to show how widespread the movement has become.

It's self-reported, but the map is pretty interesting, with hot spots in central Florida as well as Denver and New York.

Have you tried opting out your children? Did your school have a "sit and stare" policy, or handle it some other way?

UPDATE: Bob Schaeffer of FairTest says the United OptOut map "seriously underestimates" the sweep of the opt-out participation nationwide.

He noted that reports from New Jersey estimate opt-outs at close to 40,000 -- well above what the map shows. The numbers are also well higher in New Hampshire than the self-reported map indicates. …

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Will Florida bills on uniforms, guns in schools make a difference?

A lot of noise has surrounded legislation moving through the Florida Legislature involving student uniforms and concealed weapons at public schools.

The big question is, if they even become law, will they matter?

SB 180, which heads to the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, would allow superintendents to designate employees to carry concealed weapons on school grounds. School Board approval also would be required.

HB 7043, which passed the House last week, would give school districts $10 per student if they adopt student uniforms.

The key thing about each bill is, despite the political points and rhetorical claims, neither requires schools to do anything. Lawmakers can say they acted, while actually leaving the heavy lifting to school districts.

Action doesn't necessarily follow.

Consider the 2012 passage of the bill allowing school boards to create policies permitting students to offer "inspirational messages" at school functions. Critics called it the "school prayer bill" and fretted over the can of worms the new law would open. In reality, no school districts adopted "inspirational messages" policies. …

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Pasco superintendent chastises local House members over charter school funding

Superintendent Kurt Browning, one of Pasco County's most popular and prominent Republican officials, is taking to task two of his local House members for their position on charter school funding.

Specifically, Browning spoke to a measure sponsored by Miami Rep. Erik Fresen, which would require school districts to share their capital improvements property tax revenue with charters. Lawmakers have been pushing for a couple of years to funnel more taxpayer money to charter schools, which are privately run but publicly funded. (See stories from 2013 and 2014 for examples.)

Already, Browning noted, the state cut districts' maximum local property tax for construction and other capital needs. Many districts including Pasco have turned to sales taxes to boost their funding for projects. But that hasn't been enough, the superintendent said in e-mails to speaker-in-waiting Richard Corcoran and newly elected Danny Burgess. 

Forcing districts to give up a portion of what they have to charters, whose leaders should have anticipated their own needs before opening, rubs the wrong way, Browning wrote. Here's his full e-mail: …

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