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Flurry of education bills dominate debate in Legislature

TALLAHASSEE — As schoolchildren prepared to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests for the last time, the state Senate put its unanimous support behind a proposal that would simplify the school grading formula for next year.

The bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, would not pause the grading system for three years, as district superintendents had hoped. But schools would not be punished for poor academic performance in the 2014-15 school year, as children begin taking a new test.

That's not all lawmakers did Friday to alter the state's education landscape. Before leaving for a weeklong holiday, they also took significant steps on textbook adoption, vouchers and student data — all controversial topics during the current session.

State education commissioner Pam Stewart said the steps were indicative of the Legislature's commitment to education. "Maintaining accountability, ensuring data security and reaffirming our commitment to high standards are all actions that will help Florida's children be prepared for success in college, career and in life," she said in a statement.

The bill on the new grading formula (SB 1642) passed out of the Senate with almost no debate.

The old formula had come under fire for being overly complicated and virtually meaningless to parents.

The Senate voted to eliminate the bonus points schools can earn, as well as the so-called triggers that automatically cause a school grade to sink. Lawmakers also removed several factors from the formula used to evaluate high schools, including the five-year graduation rate and performance on the SAT and the ACT.

Some superintendents had hoped for a longer transition to the new grading formula, especially because the state is ushering in new standards, assessments and teacher pay systems.

"I still believe the state needs an additional year to field-test and do the work," Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said. "There are still so many unknowns and risks."

Textbook buys

Unlike the bill on the new grading formula, the textbook bill sparked debate in the Senate. It passed by a narrow 21-19 vote.

SB 864 would eliminate the state's role in adopting school textbooks, instead granting that authority to local school districts.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, introduced the measure following a battle over textbooks in Volusia County. Hays argued that local boards should choose instructional materials because they are closer to parents and teachers.

But Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, pointed out that the state's 67 school districts already have the option to adopt their own textbooks — and none has taken on the responsibility.

Bullard raised another concern: "The reality is that this particular bill may impose a financial burden on many of the districts (it) supposedly helps."

Despite passing in the Senate, the textbook bill may stumble in the House.

A proposal that once did the same thing as Hays' legislation (HB 921) evolved during committee debates, and now allows districts to decide whether they want to adopt textbooks on their own or continue to rely upon a state process.

Vouchers debate

Even more acrimonious was the House debate over school voucher programs.

HB 7167, which passed 73-43 along party lines, would create "personal learning scholarships accounts" for students with special needs. Parents could use the money as reimbursement for private-school tuition, tutoring services, instructional materials and various types of therapy.

The bill would also make changes to the tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

The original proposal would have increased the number of corporate income tax credits available to businesses that help fund the scholarships. It also would have allowed donors to receive sales tax credits.

Both of those provisions were removed prior to Friday's floor vote.

Still, Democrats opposed the bill, which retained language creating partial scholarships for higher-income students and increasing the maximum per-student scholarship beginning in 2016.

Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, a Maitland Democrat and teacher, said she was concerned that the private schools in the program were not subject to the same accountability standards as public schools.

"These schools are failing our children and we have no way of holding them accountable," she said.

House K-12 Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins said the opponents were simply trying to protect school districts.

"Our job is not to protect the current bureaucracies," said Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican. "It is to ensure that our students have access to the educational environment that best meets their needs."

The bill that passed does not put stricter testing requirements on scholarship students — a fact that could hurt its chances in the upper chamber.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he will not support a voucher bill that does not increase accountability.

On Friday, Gaetz said the bill "might come up in the Senate."

"But both Speaker (Will) Weatherford and I agreed at the time we laid out our Work Plan 2014 to try to expand school choice and at the same time try to provide more accountability for school choice," he said. "I want to honor that agreement."

The lower chamber also passed a bill that would prohibit school districts from collecting students' biometric data.

That proposal (SB 188) is now headed to Gov. Rick Scott, who is likely to add his signature.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@miamiherald.com. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Flurry of education bills dominate debate in Legislature 04/11/14 [Last modified: Friday, April 11, 2014 10:48pm]
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