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Accountability matters loom large in Florida's 2014 education debate



Florida's education policy debates won't take much of a holiday as we enter 2014. The state Senate Education Committee guarantees the hot topics of 2013 will stay on the front burner, with its invitation to have education commissioner Pam Stewart give an update on accountability efforts during the panel's Jan. 8 meeting.

Stewart, the state's sixth commissioner in three years, has spent nearly half a year listening to the public, her bosses, lawmakers, educators and others, trying to formulate an approach to school grading, academic standards, testing, teacher evaluations and other matters that have dogged the public education system in recent years.

Now it's time for her to offer her game plan, before the Legislature begins taking steps on its own.

The fallout over standards appears to have largely resolved itself: The bulk of state leaders have stood by the Common Core despite a surge of opposition, suggesting that only small tweaks are in the offing.

More critically in flux are the tests that will support the new standards. The FLDOE has received letters of interest from five groups seeking to provide those assessments, but hasn't picked one. That leaves all the interested parties still questioning which tests will be adopted, as well as when they will be ready, how they will be administered, and what the implementation time table will be -- among many other concerns.

Several education advocacy groups have called upon the state to give schools more time to adapt to the changes, particularly in light of all the unknowns.

"To me, that's the No. 1 question we've got to get resolved," said John Legg, Senate Education Committee chairman.

Once the tests are in place, two other issues quickly rise to the fore.

Florida's school grading model, which has been replicated in many other states, has yet to regain its credibility after years of changing criteria that had even the ardent supporters calling for improvements.

The demands have risen for a system that's more transparent, easier to understand and more rooted in outcomes rather than political concerns. Some lawmakers have already begun drafting their own proposals.

One idea floating around is to ensure that schools aren't unfairly reduced for a single item. That's happened to many schools that have lost an A grade despite ample points because they narrowly missed making adequate gains among the lowest quarter of students tested.

Most of the ideas remain under wraps, though, pending more discussion.

Teacher evaluations also depend on the assessments chosen. The current model has come under criticism from many teachers, who consider it confusing and unreliable, as well as from observers who question how such large percentages of teachers can be rated as effective or highly effective when their students don't score well on tests.

There's been talk of delaying some or all of the plans to connect pay and employment status more directly to the evaluations. Lawmakers, who adopted the concept that's been moving through other states, too, don't seem likely to abandon the connection, but they have signaled an openness to modifications.

"There is a balance we have to achieve, and we might never fully achieve it," Legg said. "But to simply say student performance is not going to matter on a teacher evaluation, I don't find that acceptable either."

Other issues likely to grab attention in the coming year include:

School technology - the state has committed to going digital for materials, testing and other aspects of education. The schools have made strides, but they aren't all on track for the fast approaching self-imposed deadlines set by lawmakers. A statewide plan, including funding sources, should be in the 2014 conversation.

Data security
- Common Core opponents have made this issue a big deal, by questioning the nature of the data that the government wants to obtain from children, and how they will be used. The federal government has set guidelines for the release of such data, but state officials are looking to be more strict. It's an election year, and if Common Core is to remain mostly as-is, lawakers could look to the data issue to ease some of the sting.

Tuition for undocumented students - The state House has supported giving in-state tuition to undocumented children who graduated from Florida high schools. The Senate could join the move, with support from South Florida high.

A variety of other topics, such as school capital projects funding, the costs of dual enrollment, and school choice options will continue to be in the equation. And of course the governor's race will loom large over the discussion, with the two leading candidates both deeming education a major issue in their campaigns. They agree on many items, such as voucher expansions, but not on all of them: Charlie Crist did veto the teacher contract measure that Rick Scott signed as his first law, for instance.

Did we miss any? Let us know, and then buckle in for the ride.

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