April 29, 2015

Senate passes special needs bill -- and sends it to the empty Florida House

GaetzA Senate proposal expanding services for children with unique abilities may have virtually no chance of becoming law this year, but the Senate passed the bill anyway and sent it to the empty Florida House of Representatives.

The bill (SB 602) was a top priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner, whose son Andrew has Down Syndrome. It would have expanded the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, which provides $10,000 scholarships to children with special needs. The money can be used for tutoring services, various types of therapy and college tuition, among other things.

The Senate could have voted on version of the bill amended by the House -- and sent it along to Gov. Rick Scott. But Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, took issue with a provision that would have allowed about $300 to be deducted from each child's award and given to the organization that runs the program as an administrative fee.

Gaetz said the House language did not "meet [Gardiner's] moral standard" -- the Senate version of the bill made it clear that the administrative fee could not come from student scholarships -- and slammed the organization, Step Up for Students.

Continue reading "Senate passes special needs bill -- and sends it to the empty Florida House" »

April 27, 2015

Value Adjustment Board proposal faces final hurdle

FloresThe Florida House passed a sweeping proposal on Monday that could protect the Miami-Dade school system from an anticipated $40 million budget shortfall.

The bill (HB 695) seeks to ameliorate a backlog of property tax appeals in certain parts of the state. Miami-Dade school districts official have long complained that the backlog in Miami-Dade prevents them from getting their property tax money on time.

Members of the Senate say they are committed to helping the state's largest school district.

But whether the bill will make it across the finish line remains to be seen.

Over the course of the legislative session, state representatives from other parts of the state added several provisions to the bill being considered in the House. And some senators have problems with the new language.

"House members from around the state saw this bill as a chance to address other issues with Value Adjustment Boards," said Sen. Anitere Flores, a Republican and chair of the Miami-Dade Legislative Delegation. "Some of those ideas may be worthy, but they haven't been fully vetted."

Among those ideas: a plan to let state lawmakers appoint five citizen members to their county board.

Flores said she may try to strip some of that language out of the bill when it arrives on the Senate floor Tuesday.

"What my intention was was to pass a priority of the Miami-Dade Delegation," she said.

Any changes, however, would have to go back to the House for final approval. And time is running out. The regular session is scheduled to end Friday.

The lawmaker sponsoring the bill in the House, state Republican Rep. Bryan Avila, said he wasn't sure how it would all play out. But he planned to continue the charge.

"This is a very complex process that clearly needs fixing," the Hialeah Republican said.

April 24, 2015

Miami-Dade schools to eliminate most tests

via @cveiga

Finally, some relief for the weary troops on the front lines of Florida’s testing battle.

Students who have been overwhelmed by glitchy exams now won’t face quite as many of them. On Thursday, the Miami-Dade school district decided to eliminate all but 10 of 300 course finals previously required under state law.

The changes come about a week after Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill giving districts more leeway over how many tests students have to take.

The announcement came amid mounting frustration in the classroom over testing, particularly after the new Florida Standards Assessments (FSAs) were once again hobbled by computer glitches earlier in the week.

“I don’t understand the point of these tests,” said Antquanyia Williams, a freshman at Miami Jackson Senior High. “I honestly think we should just come to school to learn for our future. None of this FSA, FCAT stuff.”

The FSAs won’t go away under the new law, which was signed April 14. Nor will the statewide end-of-course exams in subjects like algebra and biology.

But many district-developed finals for courses will be eliminated. Miami-Dade will now only give 10 of them and only to a random selection of students as a field test. Broward won’t give any, other than those still required by the state for things like student graduation requirements or school letter grades.

More here.

April 23, 2015

Florida House beefs up school choice bill

It's that point in the session when lawmakers start combining all sorts of proposals.

We call them trains.

A new education train emerged Thursday in the Florida House.

The underlying bill (HB 1145) sought to let children enroll in any public school in the state with space. (Most school children are currently limited to schools in the county where they reside.) But House Choice and Innovation in Education Subcommittee Chairman Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Miami, filed a 26-page amendment adding language about charter schools.

The bill now creates the Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation, something that already passed out of the House as part of HB 7037. It also clarifies that a charter school receiving back-to-back F grades must be automatically closed, and allows new schools to delay their opening if they have trouble finding the right facility.

Notably, the Diaz amendment did not include a provision requiring schools districts to share their construction and maintenance money with charter schools. State representatives included that language in HB 7037, but with the state budget in flux, any measures requiring funding are on shaky grounds.

Diaz proposed a second amendment containing the content of two other bills: a proposal allowing certain principals have more autonomy over staffing and budget decisions, and a proposal encouraging school systems to adopt mandatory school uniform policies.

"This is purely voluntary by the school districts," House K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, pointed out.

The amendment also addresses education for hospitalized and homebound students.

There's a similar train moving through the Senate (SB 1552). It is awaiting a hearing on the Senate floor.

April 21, 2015

Florida lawmakers rip testing vendor after second round of glitches

Schoolchildren who sat for state exams Tuesday experienced few of the technical troubles that brought testing to a standstill one day earlier.

Still, lawmakers in Tallahassee seized the opportunity to publicly blast the state’s testing vendor for its second high-profile blunder in two months.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, went as far as to say Florida should end its contract with American Institutes for Research.

"In light of the bill that the governor signed last week that will stop the utilization of that statewide assessment until it is validated — and we all know it won’t be valid — I think we as responsible agents of the taxpayer dollar need to stop this $225 million contract dead in its tracks," Hays said.

More here.

April 20, 2015

Testing troubles persist in Florida schools

Standardized testing in Florida has come to a halt. Again.

The state Department of Education told school districts early Monday that the testing company's servers were down. The technical troubles affect students in grades 5 through 8 who were scheduled to take the new computer-based Florida Standards Assessments.

Just last month, similar problems plagued the rollout of the state's new computer-based writing tests. State education officials said cyber attacks were also to blame.

State lawmakers, who have been mindful of the issue throughout the legislative session, passed a bill this month suspending school grades until the new tests are deemed valid. It was signed into law last week. But many parents and teachers have said that more dramatic action needed to be taken. They are likely to renew those calls in light of Monday's testing woes. 

Stay tuned.

April 14, 2015

Scott signs Florida testing bill

Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday signed a sweeping education bill aimed at reducing the testing requirements for public schoolchildren.

In addition to eliminating an 11th grade English exam and capping the amount of time students can spend taking state-mandated tests, the bill (HB 7069) delays the release of school grades and teacher evaluations until the new Florida Standards Assessments are deemed valid.

Scott conceded that there was still work to be done.

"I agree with many teachers and parents who say we have too many tests, and while this legislation is a great step forward, we will keep working to make sure Florida students are not over tested," he said in a statement.

Rita Solnet, one of the founders of the group Parents Across America, said Scott should consider signing an executive order holding students harmless during the transition to new standards and exams.

"While we are pleased that the legislature dialed back some unattainable demands and that they engaged in a healthy discussion on how we must restore credibility to Florida's accountability system, we are disappointed that children are still at risk of harsh penalties during this transitional period," Solnet said in a statement.

No word yet on if Scott would consider taking that kind of action. 

HB 7069 also allows school districts to start classes as early as Aug. 10. Some district leaders have said they will not take advantage of that flexibility in 2015, as many families in Florida have already begun planning their summer vacations.

April 13, 2015

Harvard health dean picked as new University of Miami president

via @cveiga

The University of Miami on Monday named Dr. Julio Frenk — Harvard school of public health dean of faculty and Mexico’s former minister of health — as its new president.

He will become the first Hispanic to lead UM.

Stuart Miller, chair of the university board of trustees and chief executive of Lennar Corp., touted Frenk as a leader with a “broad range” of qualifications who can “move the entire university forward.”

His selection, to be formally announced at a noon press conference, also sends a message, Miller said: “Our diversty is important. Our place in the international landscape of education is important.”

Frenk, who would take over on Sept. 1 as the university’s sixth president, brings sterling academic credentials to a school with aspirations of becoming “the next great American research university," as outgoing President Donna Shalala recently wrote in a letter announcing her retirement.

More here.

April 09, 2015

Florida testing bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott

A proposal that would reduce the testing requirements for Florida schoolchildren -- and delay the release of school grades until the new state exams are deemed valid -- is headed to Gov. Rick Scott's desk.

The Florida House passed the high-profile bill (HB 7069) in a 105-6 vote Thursday.

Observers had questioned whether the conservative House would go along with the latest version of the bill, given Speaker Steve Crisafulli's reluctance to even temporarily suspend school grades. But House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, said the proposal maintained Florida's commitment to education accountability.

"It looks really good," O'Toole she said. "I would not sign on if it was not."

The bill eliminates an 11th grade English test, makes the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test optional, and prohibits students from spending more than 5 percent of their total classroom hours on state-mandated exams.

In addition, the proposal:

* Allows school to start as early as Aug. 10,

* Removes a requirement that school systems give final exams in every subject not covered by state tests, and

* Reduces the amount student test scores must count toward teacher evaluations. 

To address concerns about last month's testing meltdown, the Senate added a provision requiring an independent review of the new Florida Standards Assessments. Until then, the results cannot be used for high-stakes decisions, including whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade.

Still, several House Democrats said the bill needed to go further.

"I don't think this is a panacea," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "I'm afraid we are going to hear a lot from educators."

U.S. Rep. Wilson: Do away with FSA

WilsonU.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, vowed to create a Twitter storm Thursday with a new hashtag: #doawaywithFSA.

It refers, of course, to the new Florida Standards Assessments, which are being given in schools across Florida this month. Students who took the first round of tests in March experienced a variety of technical troubles, the result of both server problems and alleged cyber attacks.

Lawmakers are considering a proposal (HB 7069) to temporarily suspend school grades and teacher evaluations if an independent agency deems the tests invalid. But Wilson, a longtime critic of the state's testing program, said the bill doest not go far enough. 

"Think about what happened this year," she said. "The computers crashed. The tests were not field tested for Florida's students."

Wilson urged state lawmakers to disregard this year's results.

"If we demand accountability, the last we can be is fair," she said.

Wilson isn't the only person raising the point. Parent groups, teachers and the state superintendents association have already asked the legislature to use 2015-16 as a baseline only. But the Republican-led lawmakers House and Senate have thus far refused.

Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami, pointed out that there are still three full weeks of session.

"We still have some opportunity," he said.

On Wednesday, the Orange County Council of PTA/PTSA demanded state officials stop this year's Florida Standards Assessments.