Thursday, April 19, 2018

Florida lawmakers advance bills on textbooks, education funding, restraint and seclusion

A bill to give Florida school district residents even more say in the selection of textbooks and instructional materials easily passed its first House committee on Wednesday, with just one member opposed.

Sponsor Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican, cast HB 827 as essentially a clarifying measure to his 2017 legislation, which gave residents more opportunities to challenge books used in their local public schools. He said this bill would provide increased transparency in the selection process, and lead to greater public participation.

The bill would, among other things, require school districts to consider using any title that is recommended for classrooms. It also would mandate that members of the public have access to materials up for state adoption, with the ability to provide comments before a State Board of Education vote.

That State Board vote would represent another change from the current adoption process, which has been staff driven.

The proposal, which does not have a direct Senate companion, already has drawn concerns from organizations that worry it aims to generate attacks on science and social studies books. They've noted that science book challenges have arisen already because of the 2017 law.

The only speaker on the bill in the PreK-12 Quality subcommittee was from the conservative Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, in favor of the initiative.

Before the vote, committee members raised a few concerns of their own.

Rep. Bruce Antone, the ranking Democrat, questioned the ability of the public to make an unlimited number of recommendations, and the requirement that the districts look into each one. He suggested that districts should not be bogged down with frivolous proposals.

Donalds said the public deserves to have relevant information, such as a title's cost from publishers, when looking at board actions.

Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, then asked whether title recommendations could come anonymously. He said it would be inappropriate to create a system where publishers who had been rejected could make recommendations to support themselves, and then require districts to act on those.

Donalds said he had not contemplated that scenario, and said he would be open to amendments.

"If you're not willing to put your name on your recommendation, it doesn't have much credibility to start with," he added.

Willhite agreed to back the bill, "for now."

The committee also supported:

HB 63, to end the use of restraint and seclusion as a way to control special needs students who are growing violent to themselves or others. This concept has come up for several years, and has yet to win approval despite seeming support. Sponsor Rep. Katie Edwards-Walpole, a Broward County Democrat, said she first proposed such legislation in 2012 and "I will bring it up every year until it passes."

HB 495, to require regular reviews of the state's education funding formulas. The studies would take into account the District Cost Differential that many school districts have deemed unfair. Supporters quickly took to social media to praise sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and the committee's vote. The Senate has an identical bill in play.

HB 577, to count apprenticeships toward certain graduation requirements. The Legislature has several bipartisan bills this session aimed at creating different "pathways" to graduation that aren't all test-driven.

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