Florida Politics

Just like finals week, lawmakers cram on school policies — from testing to recess

With two days left for lawmakers to enact policy this session, two Republican senators late Wednesday released what’s essentially a brand new bill that salvages myriad stalled education proposals while also preserving one of the Legislature’s top K-12 priorities: reforms addressing excessive standardized testing in Florida public schools.

Sens. Anitere Flores of Miami and Kelli Stargel of Lakeland filed their 72-page amendment at 9:30 p.m. Wednesday to rewrite a House-approved education bill that had been just 17 pages long.

Their new version of HB 549 also, notably, keeps in play for negotiation a parent-demanded proposal that mandates 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 standalone measure to the floor, even though it has the votes to easily pass.

HB 549 was one of two bills House members envisioned could be a vehicle for testing reforms — and various unresolved education policies — before session ends. It passed the House last Friday, 117-1, but Flores’ and Stargel’s amendment creates a bill much broader than the House considered.

The House and Senate have to approve identical language before floor sessions end Friday, in order for the bill to pass in time.

RELATED: “With Democrats upset, school testing reforms could falter again in Senate”

As of late Wednesday, HB 549 wasn’t scheduled to be heard Thursday, but there are ways for senators to still bring it to the floor — such as by taking it up in lieu of Flores’ original testing bill. The amendment being filed indicates that is the Senate’s plan.

Flores’ bill (SB 926) was supposed to be heard and amended Wednesday but was delayed amid criticism from a key Democrat. Flores and Stargel had spent the day, on and off the floor, negotiating with Tallahassee Sen. Bill Montford to allay his and other senators’ concerns that the testing reforms didn’t go far enough.

Flores’ and Stargel’s proposed rewrite to the House bill incorporates multiple pieces of legislation or policy ideas lawmakers from either or both chambers had discussed this session — some of which had already previously been tacked on to SB 926 — including:

▪ testing reforms that eliminate the Algebra II and civics end-of-course exams — two fewer than the four exams Flores’ bill cut;

▪ mandating a study by the state education commissioner as to whether national exams, such as the ACT or SAT, could be substituted for the Florida Standards Assessments or other end-of-course exams;

▪ 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 the test;

▪ 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;

▪ mandating 20 minutes of daily recess for all elementary school students, separate from physical education classes;

▪ allowing the use of school playground and sports facilities by local communities and non-profit organizations;

▪ granting more explicit rights for school board members and charter school governing board members to visit schools they oversee;

▪ letting “high-performing charter schools” replicate in “the area of a persistently low-performing school,”

▪ and allowing some charter schools to set up in places such as libraries, church property, theaters or public colleges and universities without getting a special zoning or land-use exception.

RELATED: “Fight over new charter school on Sunset Drive will continue into May”

At their Thursday caucus breakfast, Democrats seemed much more open to the testing reforms and broader education policies than they had been 24 hours prior, when Montford said he couldn’t support Flores’ bill.

Montford and Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, on Thursday praised Flores and Stargel as “open and accepting” and “exceptionally cooperative” to the Democrats’ input.

“What we agreed to yesterday — and I think that’s what’s here — is good,” Montford said, adding the caveat that he had not yet had time to carefully study the rewrite. “It’s not exactly what we sought after at the beginning of the year, but in my estimation, it’s a good beginning.”

Farmer said there were some provisions he still wasn’t happy about, such as the charter school zoning exemption, but “it could have been a lot worse, and I think we’ve done a lot to fix it.”

“Certainly, Senator Montford and I and a lot of people in this room wish that we were doing more in the elimination of testing. I think there are pieces of this thing that we would rather live without if we could — but you have to be able to count in this process,” Farmer said.

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