After several days of private collaboration among lawmakers, one major late-night rewrite and some last-minute tweaks, senators unanimously passed a sweeping education bill on Thursday — the main feature of which is to address excessive testing in Florida’s public schools.
HB 549 eliminates only a single test — the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam — and it requires the state Department of Education to study by Jan. 1 whether national exams, like the SAT or ACT, can be used as alternatives to the Florida Standards Assessments and other statewide tests.
Is this bill what I wanted? No. I wanted more, but ... I know that, at least, this is a good beginning.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee
The results of that study could spur further action by lawmakers in the 2018 session to curb duplicative testing, which several senators had hoped to accomplish this year.
“Is this bill what I wanted? No. I wanted more, but ... I know that, at least, this is a good beginning,” said Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent whose opinion on education policy is well respected by the chamber.
HB 549 was the subject of prolonged haggling this week between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and between the Senate and the House. It now goes to the House for final approval Friday, the last day lawmakers can vote on stand-alone policy legislation this session.
Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, indicated Thursday afternoon that the Senate version had the House’s support. House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, visited the Senate chambers twice earlier in the day to consult with Flores about the bill and “just to make sure we have lines of communication open.”
House members could make further changes, though, if they choose. Identical language must be approved by both chambers before the end of floor sessions on Friday in order for the bill to be sent to Gov. Rick Scott.
Senators vetted amendments and debated HB 549 for about an hour and 15 minutes before they voted. The language they approved was only 19 hours old.
Flores and Republican Kelli Stargel of Lakeland co-wrote a 72-page amendment — filed at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday — to rewrite the 17-page House bill so it included myriad other education proposals.
Their new version, notably, kept in play for negotiation a parent-demanded proposal that mandates 20 minutes of daily recess in public elementary schools.
The Senate approved the idea in early April, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, ignored parents’ pleas to bring the measure to the floor, even though it has the votes to easily pass.
Addressing parents from the Senate floor, Flores said Thursday: “We feel pretty good that your voices have been heard and that the House of Representatives will, hopefully, maybe, take this issue up. Sometimes democracy does work.”
Although the bill passed without opposition, a sticking point emerged through a provision supported by the House that would let some charter schools set up in places such as libraries, church property, theaters or public colleges and universities without getting a special zoning or land-use exception.
That language stands to benefit several charter school projects in Miami-Dade — such as a proposed Somerset charter school, which would house at least 1,400 students just east of the Palmetto Expressway. Specifically, the provision could help charter operators avoid lengthy and expensive fights over zoning exceptions.
Palm Beach County Democratic Sen. Bobby Powell criticized the carve-out, arguing it strips away control from local officials to decide how land should be used within their communities.
“With this one line, that’s one of the things we’re starting to do here,” said Powell, of Riviera Beach. “These things — charter schools or any type of school or anything that changes the use — has certain impacts that come with it, whether it be traffic, whether it be parking, and we should still have the opportunity to look at it.”
“I agree it’s a great bill,” he added. “But you cannot say I can build something as a museum or a theater, and I can turn around and turn it into a grocery store tomorrow.”
Her measure was supposed to be taken up Wednesday, but it was delayed amid criticism from Montford, a key Democrat. Flores and Stargel then spent Wednesday and part of Thursday, on and off the floor, negotiating with Montford — as well as Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point — to allay concerns that the testing reforms didn’t go far enough.
The Senate opted to take up the House bill instead of Flores’ version, and by Thursday, Montford and Farmer were on board.
But they also said they wished the bill could have done more to — as Montford put it — address a “proliferation of tests over a period of years to the point, quite frankly, where teachers couldn’t teach and students began to dread coming to school.”
“We simply over-did a good thing,” Montford said of the state’s testing regimen and education accountability system. “We heard teachers and we heard students and we heard parents saying ‘enough is enough.’ And I’m very proud of the fact that this state, this Senate, at least is taking a step to address those concerns.”
The overnight rewrite — and additional changes Thursday — incorporated multiple bills and policy ideas that lawmakers from either or both chambers had discussed this session but which stalled and didn’t reach the floor.
Some of the other significant provisions include:
▪ Requiring assessments in grades 3 through 5 to be administered in pencil-and-paper format, starting in the 2018-19 school year;
▪ Shifting the testing schedule for all statewide exams to a two- to four-week window, no earlier than April 1, depending on whether the test is given by computer or on paper;
▪ Expediting when test results are returned to parents and requiring a more “easy-to-read and understandable” report of their child’s results;
▪ Requiring the Department of Education to publish statewide assessments every three years, starting in 2019-20;
▪ Allowing schools to use phonics to teach children to read;
▪ Allowing the use of school playground and sports facilities by local communities and nonprofit organizations;
▪ Letting students have and use topical sunscreen at school;
▪ Granting more explicit rights for school board members and charter school governing board members to visit schools they oversee;
▪ Giving “high-performing charter schools” the ability to replicate in “the area of a persistently low-performing school”;
▪ And repealing a controversial formula to evaluate teachers that is based on their students’ year-over-year growth on exams.
Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed.