State abruptly ends teacher test fee waiver two months early

Officials say they met their goals. Teachers say they weren’t aware of those targets.
Classroom teachers received a 120-day waiver of fees to renew their credentials this year. The state ended the offer about two months early.  [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD   |   Times]
Classroom teachers received a 120-day waiver of fees to renew their credentials this year. The state ended the offer about two months early. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]
Published May 21, 2020

The idea received a warm welcome from teachers across Florida.

The Department of Education, in response to financial stresses caused by COVID-19, waived the fees associated with renewing educators’ credentials and, because so many testing sites were closed, extended the deadlines to meet the criteria.

Commissioner Richard Corcoran announced the 120-day waiver on March 17. A few weeks later, Corcoran celebrated the large number of teachers who had taken advantage.

More than 31,000 educators signed up, saving a combined $8 million, he reported. He called the waiver “the right thing to do.”

“This is another way for us to show our appreciation for the hard work our teachers are putting forth every day, especially during the COVID-19 health emergency,” Corcoran said in a released statement. "The waiver will not only give our educators a chance to take any necessary exams for their teaching certificate, but will also help alleviate Florida’s teacher shortage.”

So imagine the panic the Department of Education caused this week when it sent a memo to teachers Monday announcing it had reached its goal of helping about 50,000 teachers with 100,000 tests, and the waiver would end at midnight Tuesday.

“We got no notification or heads up from the DOE that they were going to cut this off,” said Florida Education Association president Fed Ingram, noting that the state never publicly announced any caps or quotas associated with the program. “Teachers who did not put this money in their personal budget because they were told they would have a fee waiver” now are disadvantaged.

The FEA’s Facebook page blew up, with hundreds of members commenting about how they tried to beat the new deadline but ran into a phone and online system ill equipped to handle the load. The state reported that people attempted to register for 27,000 certification exams and classes on Tuesday ahead of the new cutoff.

To put that in context, the department stated that teachers signed up for 165,000 the entire previous year.

URGENT: The Florida Department of Education is ceasing all fee waivers effective TOMORROW. Any teacher that intended to...

Posted by Florida Education Association (FEA) on Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ingram referred to the teachers’ reaction as “concerns, complaints and just people who were frantic.”

Some wrote that they couldn’t get through to register, and spent hours trying. Others observed that once they did make contact, they learned that the courses and tests they needed weren’t available until late fall, and in many cases, at sites far from their homes.

The department recently extended the deadline through December for teachers to complete lapsed certification requirements. Ingram and others suggested that even with the extension, many teachers might not be able to meet the mandates and could lose their jobs as the first semester winds down.

“I hope if the DOE gets data saying they’re going to lose a lot of teachers in December, that will be something they look at,” said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo, noting that his district has about 75 teachers who could fall into that category.

Pinellas schools plan to file for extensions for those teachers, so they have longer to get their permanent certification, Gandolfo said.

DOE spokeswoman Taryn Fenske said the department did not intend to create added problems for any teachers.

“When we first announced this, we wanted to be as helpful as possible ... and take some economic stress off teachers,” Fenske said.

Financial reality set in as the number of participants grew, though, she continued.

“We had no way of knowing how many people would sign up,” she said. “We budgeted for 100,000 (tests). We were thrilled with the response.”

Fenske added that the department would not let the teachers who made a good faith effort to sign up before the program’s new end would be accommodated. The department will continue to reopen testing sites, giving educators a chance to reschedule appointments sooner and closer to home, she said.

And if problems persist late into the year, threatening to bump up against the Dec. 31 when certifications expire, “We can obviously always reevaluate, as you’ve seen by us extending the deadline already.”