1. Opinion

On education, Florida lawmakers enter the 2016 session looking to tweak, not transform

Published Jan. 9, 2016

AS HE OFTEN DOES WHEN DISCUSSING the merits of education bills before the Legislature, state Sen. Don Gaetz is drawing heavily on his days as a school board member and district superintendent from 1994 to 2006.

"For way too long, children with intellectual and physical disabilities have been pushed to the margins of education," he said during a recent conversation about the upcoming session. "I remember when I became superintendent of schools in my county, Okaloosa County, most children with disabilities were in portables out in the back of the school grounds, and they were ghetto-ized educationally as well as in terms of location."

In the coming days, Gaetz, one of Tallahassee's most influential players on education issues, will carry the flag for a bill that would broaden educational opportunities for students with disabilities. It would make permanent the $10,000 "personal learning scholarship accounts" initially approved last year and establish a system to create more programs for special-needs students at Florida's colleges and universities. The bill is a high priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, the parent of a special needs son and a long-time proponent of laws that give more independence to people with "unique abilities."

At the same time, state Rep. Janet Adkins, the Fernandina Beach Republican who chairs the House K-12 Subcommittee, will be pushing a bill that would require schools to identify struggling readers before third grade and intervene with more effective teaching methods. The bill, she says, has its roots in the impassioned emails of parents across Florida, and in a wrenching story she heard from a fellow House member: "Her grandchild was just diagnosed with dyslexia," Adkins said, "and the feedback that they were getting back from the school district in response was less than desirable."

These efforts illustrate how legislative imperatives can often spring from lawmakers' personal interactions. But they also highlight another point about the education agenda for this year's session: Lawmakers, it appears, will spend most of their time tweaking the system with targeted improvements rather than trying for sweeping changes.

It's a striking contrast to the last few years, when legislators took away teacher tenure, imposed new rules for evaluating teachers, simplified the school grading system and worked through a bumpy transition to new education standards and state tests.

State Sen. John Legg says the reason for the difference is logistics. After a 2015 session that ended with an unproductive thud, legislators returned to Tallahassee for three special sessions that busied them late into the year, soon to be followed by an early starting regular session this month. That has left them with little time to work aggressively on education policy, said Legg, a Pasco County Republican who chairs the Senate education committee.

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"As a result, the number of ambitious education items are more limited this year than previous years," he said. "I think you're going to see a lot of secondary issues that have been crowded out by the testing and school grade discussion over the last two years."

In addition to his push for special needs students, Gaetz will be bringing forward a bill that would allow school districts to use what he calls "nationally branded" exams in place of the controversial Florida Standards Assessments. The state rolled out the FSA last spring amid technical glitches and other concerns that raised questions about the tests' validity, prompting widespread complaints from parents and school boards. But the education community took extra notice when all 67 superintendents condemned the state's decision to use the tests for school grades this year.

Gaetz's bill would give districts the option of using tests such as the ACT or SAT in place of the FSA in high school. It also would allow districts to use similar tests for grades three through eight, he said.

Just as with the FSA, the results would be used to chart student progress, evaluate teachers and assign grades to schools.

"I think we've reached a place where 100 percent of the superintendents have lost confidence in the validity and reliability of the FSA," said Gaetz, a former Senate president who chairs the Senate's Appropriations Subcommittee on Education. "We need to provide an alternative for local school districts to consider."

Legg has been working with Gaetz on the bill, but has concerns about whether a proper alternative test can be found for the lower grades. He also said House members appear to have little enthusiasm for the idea so far.

That's not the case with a proposal by Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to allow high school students to fulfill their two-year foreign language requirement by taking computer coding courses instead — another in a series of efforts aimed at readying students for the technology demands of the work world. A similar measure failed in last year's session, but this one has support in both chambers and crosses party lines.

Adkins will sponsor the bill in the House. She says it would offer flexibility to students with a facility for computer coding and notes that many coding jobs go unfilled every year.

"That's a bill that I support," echoed Gaetz, adding that it already has passed through one Senate committee. "I will take that bill up in my committee, and we will pass it."

The cooperative vibe has not carried over into the controversial Best and Brightest program, which will give large bonuses this year to "highly effective" Florida teachers who scored in the 80th percentile and higher on the SAT or ACT exams they took back in high school.

The idea died in last year's spring session after getting no traction in the Senate, but found its way into the budget during the June special session after some maneuvering by House leaders. For this session, Legg has filed a bill himself to ensure the issue is fully aired in the Senate. Teachers, meanwhile, have complained loudly, saying old standardized test scores are a poor measure for deciding who deserves a bonus.

Adkins said the program is an incentive to keep teachers from jumping to other professions — and a way the Legislature can show its appreciation directly, without going through school districts.

But Legg said Best and Brightest has suffered "significant implementation problems" and is an example of "sound bite solutions" that don't work well in the complex world of education.

"I have not seen data that say SAT scores alone are an indicator of better teaching," said Legg, who operates a charter school. "I've hired people with Ph.D.s that have had stellar SAT scores and they could not control a classroom."

The 2016 session will feature debates on other education issues as well, including bills that would mandate recess in elementary schools, allow students to change schools without regard to school zones, and close loopholes that allow districts to avoid class size restrictions.

But lawmakers will be tinkering along the edges of a state education system that has seen its share of disruption in recent years. Don't expect anything big or bold, Legg said. Just some "fine-tuning on existing systems that I think will help our students."


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