State Politics

Lawmakers’ weekend homework produces omnibus education bill, including testing reform

Florida lawmakers want to reform school assessment schedule

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.
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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.

Lawmakers in the Florida House took a priority proposal aimed at reforming the standardized testing schedule in K-12 public schools and transformed it Monday into a broader education policy bill — a move intended to set up negotiations with the Senate before the scheduled end of the 2017 session on May 5.

Members of the House Education Committee voted to expand HB 773 through a 76-page amendment — filed late Sunday by bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. The amendment replaces the bill so it incorporates language not only from Diaz’s original measure but also from about seven other education bills lawmakers have considered to varying degrees.

Such a strategic move is typical at this point in session but often draws criticism over a lack of transparency. Individual policy bills that stalled in committee can find new life through omnibus bills lawmakers create by attaching those smaller proposals on to a single, expanded bill that’s still on track to reach the floor.

Senators last week similarly expanded their testing proposal (SB 926), although the tangential education policies being added to each chamber’s testing bill don’t yet align. For instance, the initial expansion of SB 926 wasn’t nearly as wide-ranging as what the House committee approved of Monday.

And one key difference in the Senate’s language involves a popular proposal that the House has resisted this session to the frustration of parents: daily school recess. Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores added the language from the Senate-approved recess bill into her testing bill as a way to force the House to eventually consider the issue.

RELATED: “House Speaker: There’s time to address school recess, but no promises”

Diaz’s expansion to his testing bill did not include the recess language, but he told the Herald/Times earlier Monday that that policy could be a factor later on once the chambers try to find compromise on a final bill.

“What you see here is the House trying to line up and be in position to agree on assessments and other policies that may or may not include recess in the end, depending on what the Senate sends us and how we are able to negotiate,” Diaz said in a text message.

Manny Diaz
State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

How those negotiations might go down hinges first on the House and Senate bills each passing a floor vote in their respective chambers, which is expected and could happen as soon as this week.

But complex and divisive negotiations on the annual state budget could put a wrinkle in what happens next. Those talks, as of midday Monday, were at a stalemate, which could potentially put negotiations on policy bills at risk, too, in the remaining days.

MORE: “ ‘The House is prepared to walk away,’ K-12 education budget chairman says”

The education proposals Diaz added to his testing bill span an array of issues, from teacher certification and bonuses to reading instruction and virtual learning. A couple of the original standalone bills those came from have passed the House floor already, while others were considered and approved only by a single committee.

The omnibus bill received bipartisan praise, although several Democrats said they prefer the Senate’s testing bill and want to see the House version go farther.

“Everything in the bill is not something that I like, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so I think I’ll hop on the ‘train,’ ” Broward County Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, said. (A “train” is the term lawmakers have for late-session omnibus bills.)

Diaz’s bill earned only one “no” vote in the Education Committee from Ocoee Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown.

Diaz last week began moving toward compromise with the Senate’s testing proposal, which became much more comprehensive after Flores absorbed in her bill bipartisan, popular ideas originally only in a Democratic senator’s bill. (The original versions of Diaz’s and Flores’ testing bills dealt mostly with reducing the testing window but actually did nothing to eliminate standardized tests, despite being billed as the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation.)

The latest iteration of Diaz’s proposal now includes eliminating one exam — the Algebra II end-of-course test — and it also factors in a measure important to the Senate: allowing at least some grades to use pencil-and-paper exams, rather than mandating only computerized assessments for all grades.

MORE: “Senators’ homework pays off in progress on reducing student assessment tests”

The amendment the House Education Committee approved includes a $19.3 million appropriation to pay for all of the changes proposed in the broader bill, such as the testing reforms. House members have said letting schools use the pencil-and-paper option, in particular, would come at a cost.

Diaz’s revised bill also proposes a more staggered way to limit the schedule for statewide standardized assessments, which currently are administered over a span of several months at the end of the school year.

Under his amendment, starting in 2018-19, the third grade English Language Arts assessment and the writing portion of that exam for grades 4-10 would be limited to a two-week testing window no earlier than April 1. Any paper-based exams would also have to be administered within a two-week window no earlier than May 1.

All other statewide assessments would have to be given within the last four weeks of the school year, no sooner than May 1.

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

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