As they return to school in August, Florida students will find they have some new rights, courtesy of a state Legislature that was busy this year when it came to education. These range from the ability to speak more freely to the chance to get a little down time. Not all the rules apply to everyone equally. But barring a legal challenge, they'll be in place for the first day of school.
Freedom of expression
With little dissent, lawmakers made it crystal clear that kids have the right to talk about religion in their public schools without fear of retribution.
People pushing this measure argued that in some schools, teachers had punished students who prayed in class, included religious material in their course assignments, or wore clothing with religious symbols.
The new law prohibits any such discrimination, which really had not been allowed anyway.
It clarifies that students may state their religious views in public schools, just as they might express their secular opinions. It instructs teachers to evaluate student work based on academic standards relating to the course, regardless of whether the work includes religious content.
The law even requires school districts to adopt policies creating a limited public forum at any event where students are to speak, allowing them to discuss topics including religion. This had been optional in the past, and no districts have implemented such policies.
Many of these provisions had already existed, but lawmakers decided to consolidate them so schools and students alike understand what's permissible.
The Legislature did make one addition for school district personnel, allowing them to participate in student-led religious activities before and after classes, unless the participation interferes with their work responsibilities.
After unsuccessfully urging their local school boards to require daily elementary school recess, a group of parents turned to the Legislature for assistance.
They got their mandate on their second try.
Beginning this fall, all elementary schools in Florida must offer 20 minutes of uninterrupted free time each day. This rule does not apply to charter schools.
The rationale? Families who want recess can pick their neighborhood school.
Districts are working out the details of exactly how to fit the requirement into an already crowded school day. Some have said they will cut other extras to free up the time. Others have indicated it won't be that much of a burden.
Educators, parents and students have long argued that Florida requires too many tests, taking up too much class time.
The legislative session started out with a strong push against testing, with bills aiming to cut the number of exams and the days spent administering them.
What eventually passed was a significantly scaled-back version.
Algebra II students no longer will face the state end-of-course exam, which had been required and counted as 30 percent of their grade. They'll still face a final, just not from the state.
As for others who had hoped to escape end-of-course exams in U.S. history, civics, geometry and biology, as once proposed, forget it. Proposals to cut those did not make it to the finish line.
Hoping to leave more time for learning and less for testing, superintendents pushed to return to paper-pencil state tests that take fewer days to implement. (Computerized tests take longer because districts have to schedule a large number of test-takers on a limited number of devices.) They said the change would allow testing to begin later in the spring.
Lawmakers met that idea halfway.
Students in third through sixth grades will take their state math and language arts tests on paper, rather than on computers. That will allow the state to shrink its assessment window and begin testing closer to the end of the school year.
The Legislature also agreed to resume publication of certain state tests after students take them, so parents and educators can see samples. The state stopped releasing tests a decade ago.
Student athletes won a P.E. pass in the session.
If they participate in varsity or junior varsity sports for two years, high school students no longer will have to take the state physical education graduation requirement.
In the past, those students had to either earn the credit or pass a proficiency test, regardless of their time on a team.
Lawmakers questioned the rationale for that requirement, noting that students in other activities such as ROTC received a pass from the P.E. mandate.
Students still are required to receive at least one credit through an online course, and many take care of that with physical education, killing two birds with one stone. Whether athletes will choose to meet that online requirement with another subject will remain to be seen.
The books and other materials teachers select for their classes always have been open for review and challenge.
Now, with the religious expression law mentioned above, contesting their use gets a bit easier.
Students are more free to speak their views, though they must remain respectful. Parents, and now "county residents," have more explicit rights to question the texts being used to teach lessons, or that are available in school libraries.
Districts will have to set up guidelines for reviews, which must include at least one public hearing before a qualified hearing officer. The final say remains with the school board.
The law doesn't specifically give students the right to challenge the items, but it doesn't exclude them either. They are county residents, after all.
This one is aimed at students who attend private schools that don't have the extra programs they're interested in.
They've always been able to participate in sports at the public school their house is zoned into. With school choice in mind, the Legislature expanded the opportunities for the new academic year.
Now, those students can play at any public school they might choose to attend if that school has available capacity. Rules against recruiting still apply.
Some schools in Florida actually provide sunscreen to students when they go outside for activities. Some ask for a doctor's note to allow students to use the lotion.
The Sunshine State needs sun protection, lawmakers reasoned, as they prohibited school districts from requiring a prescription for sunblock.
Slather away. Don't miss your nose and ears.
Over two years, about a dozen Florida school districts and a handful of charter schools adopted mandatory student uniforms for kindergarten through eighth grade.
Their aim, at least in part, was to access a $10 per student financial incentive from the state.
This year, the state killed that $14 million line item in the education budget. Will the schools end their clothing mandates, too? Time will tell.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.