Florida Politics

With Democrats upset, school testing reforms could falter again in Senate

Lawmakers’ session-long efforts to substantively address over-testing in Florida’s public schools are stumbling to the finish line this week, after one key Democrat came out against a compromise bill senators will keep refining into Thursday.

Senate Democrats said legislation that’s supposed to reduce testing and otherwise improve the assessment regimen (SB 926) barely makes any major changes and is, instead, turning into a problematic hodgepodge of education policy they’re reluctant to support.

Time runs short. For the testing reforms to pass this year, both the House and Senate have to approve identical language before Friday.

A total re-write of SB 926 is possible overnight. It would attempt to address concerns from Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford and other senators, as well as school district superintendents — who say the legislation doesn’t go far enough to eliminate duplicative tests or afford schools the option of administering exams by pencil and paper (instead of by computer) among other reforms.

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Venting his frustration early Wednesday, Montford — whose widely praised, bipartisan testing reform proposal was shelved so that Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores’ less comprehensive plan supported by Jeb Bush’s influential education foundation could advance instead — told his Democratic colleagues that if he’d had to vote that day, “I’d vote against this bill.”

Montford is a former Leon County schools superintendent, and his opinion on education policy proposals holds a lot of sway among the 15-member Democratic caucus.

“I’m frustrated at the process and the negative implications of what this bill does,” Montford told his colleagues about Flores’ bill. “Keep in mind, the whole purpose of this was to relieve students of the overburden of exams and let teachers teach.”

Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who is poised to be the Senate minority leader in 2018, empathized with Montford’s discontent.

“I feel like I’ve heard you give that same speech for five years. They do this to you every time,” Clemens said. “What happens is now they’ll throw a few good things back in there and then try to get folks to vote for the bad stuff because of the few good things.”

“This is not a new thing. It’s a pattern they use every year,” Clemens said, adding that Republican leaders want to “make people vote for it because they’d have to vote against good things. It’s a bad way to do education policy to cram all this policy in one bill.”

At its final committee, SB 926 was turned into a broader education policy bill beyond just testing, and it now includes other concepts, including the Senate-approved language for daily school recess. It’s not uncommon for such omnibus bills to appear — and expand drastically — in the final days of the legislative session.

The full Senate was supposed to take up SB 926 Wednesday, along with a plethora of amendments filed from senators who sought to tack on other education-related bills that never made it to the floor.

But amid several Democrats’ frustrations, the bill was postponed until Thursday.

By Wednesday evening, Montford said he felt “better” about the bill. He, Flores and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, spent much of the day on and off the floor negotiating a compromise.

A House companion (HB 773), which had significantly different language, died Wednesday after it wasn’t taken up before the House adjourned for the day. Bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said Flores’ bill is now the vehicle for any testing reforms — or other education policy that might be added — but it would still be subject to negotiations with the House in the final two days.

SB 926 had a rocky start in its first Senate committee, where Flores worked with Montford and Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, to incorporate some of Montford’s ideas into her bill.

Those included eliminating end-of-course exams in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics and giving some flexibility on pencil-and-paper exams. Flores’ measure, like the initial House version, initially did nothing to eliminate or reduce testing and largely only shifted the testing schedule to the end of the year — and even this week, senators want it to go farther than the previous compromise.

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In the early afternoon, Flores told the Herald/Times: “We are working with Senators Stargel and Montford, and the House of course, to work out the issues and we are holding strong on our position for recess.”

Flores could not be reached for additional comment Wednesday evening.

Montford, who works as the CEO of the statewide superintendents’ association, said he had spoken to school superintendents twice during the day, who also had had concerns.

“We’re getting the issues ironed out,” Montford said after the day’s floor session. “It’s got a lot of good in it, but there are some key pieces that we’ve been working on for a year that I think need to be reflected in that.”

Some superintendents were tight-lipped or vague Wednesday about their positions on SB 926, but Pinellas County schools Superintendent Michael Grego seemed to echo Montford’s sentiment.

“The Senate’s testing bill was worked on for more than a year by superintendents and many other groups. The legislation has a rare level of unison support because the changes will strengthen the state’s accountability system and ultimately increase student achievement,” Grego said in a statement that didn’t specify if he was referring to Montford’s original bill.

Lynda Russell, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, didn’t ask senators to vote one way or the other on the bill Wednesday morning but told the Democrats: “All of us — teachers, parents, education stakeholders around this state — started this session with great expectations and high hopes that we were going to have a great testing reform bill like Sen. Montford’s, and at a minimum, I would say it would be a disservice to go home and say that we have passed a testing reform bill that does as little as this one.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed.

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