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Senate committee advances strict turnaround school bill, calls for changes

Members say they hope to see amendments at the next stop in Education Appropriations.
Leon County fifth-grader Ingrid Hanley asks the Senate Education Committee not to adopt legislation that would get tougher on D-rated schools, during a Feb. 17, 2020, session. [The Florida Channel]

Saying Florida needs to “step on the gas” to rid itself of F-rated schools, state Sen. Dennis Baxley on Monday pressed his Senate Education Committee colleagues to advance his bill that would accelerate the time frame in which the lowest performing schools on state tests can adopt and implement improvement plans.

The bill (SB 1498) would require any school with one D or F state grade to create a turnaround model. Currently, a school would not enter that system unless it receives two consecutive D’s or one F. The bill then would give schools the remainder of their current year plus one more year to improve to a C, or face either closure, conversion to a charter or turnover of its operations to an outsider firm.

It’s part of a larger measure that aligns with a similar bill in the House (HB 7079) that aims to tie changes in the state’s accountability system to testing shifts associated with newly adopted academic standards.

Related: Florida has new school standards. Did it dump the Common Core?

“How long are we going to send (children) to school to fail?” Baxley said in his closing remarks on the proposal. “We have to move on this. Speed, rate, how — we have got to do it. ... I want to say we have no more F schools in Florida.”

Senators from both parties agreed that the goals stated are desirable and necessary. At the same time, though, they raised concerns that the strict timeline and prescribed cures might not be in the schools’ best interest.

After all, as Baxley himself noted, the existing system has led the state to just a few dozen F schools — well below when the system began.

Sen. Lori Berman, a Palm Beach County Democrat, offered her support but said she wanted to see changes to address her concerns about the one-year turnaround proposal.

Senate president pro tempore David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican, voted for the bill, too, but suggested amendments would be in order at the bill’s next committee stop of Education Appropriations — where he, Baxley and others from the Education Committee also sit — so the resulting measure does not “unreasonably and inappropriately penalize these schools.”

Several Leon County educators, plus some parents and students, encouraged the committee to reconsider the portions of the bill relating to school grades and turnarounds. They said the idea as written could hurt schools that are attempting to overcome adversity, by splitting limited resources among a larger number of schools and not permitting local educators enough time to implement meaningful change with the support of their communities.

“My school grade doesn’t tell you the best parts about my school,” Leon County fifth grader Ingrid Hanley told the panel. “My school has helped me grow as a student and as a person.”

If the state forces her school to close, she said, her family will lose its education choice and her neighborhood will lose a place that brings people together.

“None of us want a D or F school in our community,” Leon superintendent Rocky Hanna added later. “We are simply asking that we push the pause button and let the process work itself out.”

The Education Committee supported the bill as one of its final acts for the 2020 session. It has no more planned meetings.

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