TALLAHASSEE — Senate leaders on Tuesday advanced a wide-ranging proposal that is opening up a new legal and school accountability debate over how to deal with the fallout of COVID-19 in Florida’s education system.
The Senate Education Committee is proposing legislation that would shield universities from lawsuits seeking a return of tuition and fees. It also would cancel the consequences of spring academic testing and allow some parents to have their kids repeat a grade to recover from learning losses experienced during the pandemic.
Committee chairman Sen. Joe Gruters said his bill has been put together in collaboration with the state Department of Education. He noted it has the support of many local school officials, parents and administrators.
The odds of the proposal passing remain murky, though. That’s because it remains unclear whether Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are on board with all of its provisions, some of which they have the authority to enact with emergency powers.
Hialeah state Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican ally of DeSantis, voted in favor of the bill on Tuesday, but said he would prefer to leave school accountability decisions to Corcoran.
“We don’t always have to pass a law to put these things into effect, but I think it does send a clear message to him and where the Legislature is,” Diaz said.
In the Florida House, top education policy writers recently indicated they do not anticipate taking up legislation to cancel consequences for standardized testing, as the Senate bill would do.
Gruters remained optimistic.
“I am working with the House and other stakeholders to make sure we can push this through,” the Sarasota Republican said.
Shielding schools from liability
The Senate proposal would build on the Republican-dominated Legislature’s priority to protect businesses and institutions from pandemic-related lawsuits.
It would shield public and private universities and colleges from lawsuits that seek tuition or fee reimbursements. The protections would offer no recourse to students who feel they didn’t get the full education experience they anticipated.
“Just because you didn’t have the overall college experience that you normally have, it still doesn’t mean that you should not have to pay tuition,” Gruters said. “Unfortunately, there’s people that want to do virtual instruction and then don’t want to pay.”
Sandy Harris, a representative for Nova Southeastern University, a Davie-based private university that is currently tangled up in a federal suit over tuition and fees, spoke in support of the bill.
“We are simply asking for the support of the Legislature to protect us from these class-action lawsuits,” Harris said.
About 24 lawsuits seeking tuition and fee refunds from higher education institutions have been filed in Florida since the start of the pandemic last March, according to an online tracker from the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.
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“In terms of tuition and fees, if they [students] were provided the online instruction, I think it is fair to say that they received the benefits,” Gruters said, noting that he is willing to reconsider language about fees associated with dorms and meal plans.
Gruters’ proposed liability protections were not included in a bill DeSantis signed into law on Monday. The new law makes it harder to sue healthcare providers, governments and educational institutions against personal-injury lawsuits related to the pandemic.
Gruters says tuition and fee lawsuits tied to the pandemic “easily could have been folded in” the bill, but the issue came to light too late.
“I have not talked to the governor about it, but I would assume he would support it,” said Gruters, who doubles as the chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.
Now, let’s talk about testing
Florida’s school board officials and parents started asking legislators to cancel consequences for spring testing before the 60-day legislative session even started.
As pressure has mounted, the Senate responded with Tuesday’s bill.
The proposal specifies that testing would still take place and school grades would still be calculated. But, Gruters said, “there will just be no consequences.”
That means that results from standardized tests wouldn’t be used to determine student performance or to evaluate personnel.
The bill also says grades could still be used to determine a school’s improved marks from prior years, a policy backed by Corcoran, who has said he does not want to punish schools that improve their standing during the pandemic.
“To deny them the opportunity to come out of turnaround is disheartening and demoralizing,” Corcoran said during an online town hall meeting March 11.
On the flip side, schools that score the same or lower grade compared to 2018-2019 would not be “subject to sanctions or penalties,” according to the bill.
As the bill progresses, the state is still weighing whether to request a federal waiver of the accountability rules. If approved, the waiver wouldn’t stop tests from taking place, as they did last spring. But it would allow the state to forgo the requirement of testing 95% of eligible students and give the state more flexibility to determine school grades and offer needed support.
State officials and some lawmakers have been hesitant to cancel consequences for standardized testing because they worry students won’t take the exams seriously.
“I think we have to maintain the importance of the accountability system to be able to have students take the test seriously, and really gauge where they’re at and then go from there,” Diaz said on Tuesday.
Diaz, like House Education & Employment Committee Chairman Chris Latvala, said he would like to leave those decisions up to the state Department of Education — not the Legislature.
When asked about his plans on Tuesday, Corcoran said no details have been solidified. But Tampa Bay area school board officials said they have been hearing the governor’s office will make an announcement about testing consequences within the next few days.
The COVID-19 slide
The Senate plan also would allow parents to have their elementary-aged children repeat a grade to recover from learning losses experienced during the pandemic, a choice that state law currently leaves up to school officials.
DeSantis backed the idea last spring. But he never formalized his pledge, leaving final decisions up to school leaders and teachers “based on the students’ classroom performance and progress monitoring data.”
Under the Senate proposal, a superintendent must consider a parent’s retention request if submitted by June 30.
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report.
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