State Politics

Jeb Bush’s education foundation praises Miami lawmaker in web ad

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores is spearheading legislation this year to address excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools. The original bill was crafted in part with help from the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future, which has since taken out a web ad praising Flores.
Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores is spearheading legislation this year to address excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools. The original bill was crafted in part with help from the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future, which has since taken out a web ad praising Flores. AP

A highly influential education policy foundation that was set up by former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush is running an online ad promoting Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores and her bill to address excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools.

The ad from the Foundation for Florida’s Future proclaims that “Sen. Flores is working to give teachers more time to teach” and directs viewers to a webpage, which offers the foundation’s explanation of the original versions of SB 926 and HB 773 — Flores’ and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.’s testing legislation.

The foundation had a hand in crafting the legislation, according to Flores, and has a stake in ensuring its passage.

The legislation is a way for Republican lawmakers to delicately respond to intensifying complaints from parents and teachers upset about over-testing and the “high stakes” associated with those statewide exams. The education accountability system Florida uses today stems from Bush’s legacy of linking student assessment scores to school grades and funding.

Flores was Bush’s education policy chief in the early 2000s and has worked closely with the Foundation for Florida’s Future on several bills over the years, she said.

She said she was unaware of the foundation’s ad until told about it Monday by the Herald/Times. It’s unclear how long the ad has been online. Foundation officials did not respond to an email requesting comment.

Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores talks about a proposal to reform the K-12 school testing schedule during a press conference at the Florida Capitol on Feb. 15, 2017.

The foundation is the most prominent of only a handful of supporters who have advocated for Flores’ and Diaz’s original legislation. While Diaz’s bill in the House remains largely the same, Flores’ bill is now far more wide-ranging and consequential — and not solely to Flores’ credit, which she acknowledges.

Republican and Democratic senators very publicly blasted the original version of Flores’ bill, instead favoring one by Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, which was more popular among lawmakers, parents and most other education groups.

Unlike Flores’ bill — which did not actually eliminate any standardized tests or improve their quality, despite being called the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill — Montford’s proposal was more comprehensive and offered several ways for schools to truly cut back on the amount of tests students take.

Two weeks ago, the Senate Education Committee approved a revised version of Flores’ bill, which blended large parts of Montford’s legislation on to hers.

The bill now:

▪ pushes testing back to the final three weeks of the school year;

▪ requires a faster turnaround time for teachers and parents to get results;

▪ eliminates end-of-course exams in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics;

▪ allows school districts to use paper-and-pencil exams instead of computerized tests;

▪ repeals a controversial formula to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year growth on exams;

▪ lets students who pass certain exams — such as Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate tests — to be exempt from the statewide Florida Standards Assessments in those areas, beginning next school year,

▪ and calls for an independent study first to see if it’s feasible for students to take the SAT/ACT as an alternative to the statewide standardized test and whether those results would align with Florida Standards, the state’s version of Common Core.

“Just like any bill, it’s morphed into something that is the reflection of priorities of lots of different senators, different groups, different people,” she said Monday.

Both Diaz’s and Flores’ versions of the testing legislation have one more committee stop in each chamber before they could reach the floor. Flores’ bill has its final hearing Wednesday in the Senate Rules Committee, and Diaz’s bill is most likely to be taken up Thursday in the House Education Committee.

This is the final week most policy committees will meet for the 2017 session, which is scheduled to end May 5.

Flores said the Senate and House haven’t yet had conversations on how to compromise on a final bill, assuming each eventually passes the floor. She said one of the elements important to the Senate is ensuring there is an option for districts to use pencil-and-paper tests, instead of the mandatory computerized tests.

“There’s not going to be a formal conference on this bill, but it’ll be part of the regular negotiating process,” she said.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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