For the second straight year, Florida lawmakers spent the closing hours of their session debating hot-button education issues.
And again, despite some hand wringing, they adopted a few measures that had much more support among the political classes than from educators, parents and students.
The final bill incorporated ideas from more than 20 bills. Those, along with proposals approved earlier in the session, could impact Florida education in a big way — providing Gov. Rick Scott signs them into law.
How significant would the changes be? Here's a look at the major ones:
Florida's self-designated "recess moms" pushed a mandate for 20 minutes of daily elementary school recess for a second year, and found quick success in the Senate. The House, however, held the bill hostage despite widespread support.
In the final days, the idea resurfaced and won approval, although with an unrequested exemption for charter schools.
The Legislature proposes spending an extra $151 million a year to expand the Bright Futures scholarship program for qualifying for students who are Florida residents and choose a public or private college in state.
The change would affect only the top-level award for "Florida Academic Scholars," about 45,000 students. At a four-year institution, the scholarship would increase from the current $103 per credit hour to fully paid tuition (at the public university rate). It also would cover a variety of fees, plus $300 that could be used every fall and spring for books and other education-related expenses.
Even before the session began, lawmakers sounded determined to scale back a testing system that had grown out of control. They wound up with one fewer end-of-course exam (Algebra II) and the elimination of a physical education test for student-athletes who don't take a PE course. Their bill would move the start of the state testing window back to May 1, with a few exceptions, and limit the time spent on those tests to two weeks.
The exceptions would be third-grade reading, and paper-based tests in grades three through six, which take longer to grade.
Also, the Legislature agreed to provide test results more quickly and with clearer explanations.
Lawmakers said they were fed up with schools that consistently fail in state accountability measures, and sought to give families some alternatives. So the House created a new class of charter schools called "schools of hope," to be run by operators with records of success in low-achieving communities.
They'd get five-year contracts and a variety of passes from state and local red tape, supported by millions in state funds. They'd also get a share of local property taxes for capital projects, and their status would be elevated for state funding purposes.
Senators balked at pouring so much money into these new charters without offering some help to struggling traditional schools. So they offered a compromise that would provide a portion of the millions to some, but not all, of those schools.
Schools earning two D's or one F would have two years to show improvement, or face closure or takeover. Close to 200 traditional schools could be affected.
The Legislature also decided to spread federal Title I funds for low-income schools to more schools, and change the way that money may be spent.
On the other side of the coin, the lawmakers devised a "schools of excellence" designation for schools whose grade results are consistently in the top 20 percent. So long as they remain at that level, they would receive certain exemptions from mandates.
Their principals would have more autonomy on staff and money matters. And they would be allowed to calculate their class sizes using the school average, a more lenient method that was considered for all schools but did not pass through both chambers.
Responding to teacher complaints, lawmakers passed legislation removing the requirement for districts to gauge teacher effectiveness using the controversial "value-added model," which relies on test scores.
They also made clear that school boards may not offer any guaranteed employment extensions to teachers on annual contract, something many districts have done since 2011.
In addition, lawmakers extended the Best and Brightest bonus to more teachers. For the next three years, those who earn a "highly effective" rating would get a $1,200 bonus while those with "effective" ratings would get $800.
After that time, new criteria would kick in for a higher payout. The expansion also added an award for principals in schools with the highest percentage of Best and Brightest teachers.
Lawmakers also eliminated the bonus cap for teachers whose students successfully complete AP, AICE and similar tests.
Acting on concerns from residents, lawmakers adopted rules making it easier for parents and others to challenge classroom materials such as textbooks. Districts would have to bring in an "unbiased and qualified hearing officer" to hear complaints and issue recommendations.
Citing a need to protect student and school employees' religious freedoms, the Legislature adopted a measure to guarantee students may use religious content during lessons, wear clothing and jewelry with religious symbols at school, and participate in religious activities including prayer at school during appropriate times.
They also made clear that school employees may participate in student-led religious activities on school grounds, as long as the activities are voluntary and do not interfere with the employees' responsibilities.
Lawmakers expanded eligibility for children with special needs to receive a Gardiner Scholarship, and they increased the base award amounts for low-income students who receive corporate tax credit scholarships. Students use these state programs to attend private schools.
Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.