March 12, 2015

Florida school uniform proposal advances

Florida lawmakers want to help kids across the state with an age-old quandary: what to wear to school.

A House panel on Thursday gave its approval to a plan that would encourage school districts to adopt a standard attire policy for students in grades K-8.

The bill includes a cash incentive — $10 per student —for school districts that comply.

That could mean as much as $1.4 million for the Broward district, and $2.25 million for Miami-Dade. The money would be earmarked for school safety initiatives.

"We think this would streamline morning activities for moms and dads, and help improve the climate at schools across the state," House K-12 Education Committee Chairwoman Janet Adkins said Thursday.

More here.

House panel rejects pitch to pause school grades

A proposal to eliminate some testing requirements for Florida schoolchildren won the unanimous support of a second House committee on Thursday.

The real debate centered around an amendment proposed by Rep. Mia Jones.

Jones, D-Jacksonville, proposed holding off on school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments -- something superintendents, school board members and parent groups have long been asking for.

Jones noted that students had trouble accessing Florida's new online exams last week -- the result of both software problems and cyber attacks -- and argued it would be unfair to hold students responsible for the results.

"Today, I ask you not to put a scarlet letter on our young people," she said.

Several members of the public spoke in support of her recommendation.

Duval County School Board member Becki Couch pointed out that when the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests were given for the first time in 1998, the results were used only as a baseline and not for high-stakes decisions.

"School grades would be meaningless this year because there would not be a baseline [and] there would not have been a uniform testing environment that was provided for the students," Couch said.

Joy Frank, of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said pausing school grades for a year would "recalibrate the system."

"This is not been an easy transition,” Frank said. "The teachers have been working very hard and diligently to implement these standards and administer this test with fidelity. The students have been prepared and ready to take the assessment, and many of them last week could not get on the system. I think it behooves us to support the teachers and the students."

Representatives from the Broward, Palm Beach, Pasco and Polk school districts also endorsed the proposed amendment.

But Republicans on the panel disagreed.

“The pressure helps our schools to continue to strive to do better,” said Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

The proposed amendment was rejected.

The bill itself was approved by a unanimous vote. Frank called it an "excellent product."

"You have listened to us and we appreciate it," she said.

But Florida Education Association President Andy Ford expressed lingering concerns.

"We truly believe there needs to be a time out on the consequences for students, teachers and schools until we work through this year and see what the baseline data shows us," he said.

March 11, 2015

House panel approves gun-toting teacher bill

STEUBEIs the third time a charm for a proposal that would allow Florida teachers to pack heat?

Some members of the state House of Representatives hope so.

The controversial bill, which won the support of the House K-12 Education Subcommittee on Wednesday, is likely to move quickly in the lower chamber.

But it may struggle to win votes in the more moderate Senate — due largely to opposition from the teachers union and PTA.

The proposal (HB 19) would let schools superintendents designate employees or volunteers to carry concealed weapons on school property.

Any designated individuals would have to have served in the military or law enforcement, and undergo special training from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

They would also need to hold concealed weapons permits.

State Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, says the measure would keep students and teachers safe in a school shooting.

"Most of our elementary schools do not have a school resource officer or anyone there that can respond to any type of armed threat," Steube said. "So they are at the whim of a shooter until a law enforcement officer gets there."

More here.

March 09, 2015

Testing bill advances in House

A Florida House panel gave its unanimous support Monday to a bill that would reduce the amount of testing in public schools.

A similar proposal passed out of its first committee in the Senate last week -- albeit along party lines.

A few members of the public weighed in on the House proposal on Monday, including Florida Education Association President Andy Ford.

Ford expressed lingering concerns "about the total amount of time that testing consumes in a school year." He also referenced the problem-plagued roll out of the new Florida Standards Assessment. Districts across the state had to halt testing last week after students had problems accessing the online testing platform. On Monday, the state education department said cyber attacks were also to blame.

Ford urged lawmakers "to hit the pause button" until the problems were worked out.

Also debated: a provision in the bill that would allow school districts to start classes as early as Aug. 10. Under current law, school begins two weeks before Labor Day.

The proposed change met resistance from the tourism industry. Bill Lupfer, a lobbyist for the Florida Attractions Association, said his organization would prefer to see school start on the the third Monday in August.

"The summer season is a short season and every day is critical," Lupfer said.

Richard Turner, who represents the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, recommended an Aug. 15 start date.

"Aug. 10 does begin to negatively impact those Florida families that traditionally take a vacation to weeks prior to the start of schools," he said.

Lawmakers aid they would consider the feedback moving forward.

Florida testing troubles caused by cyber attack

Florida's standardized exams that debuted last week suffered from cyber attacks that led to blank screens throughout the state as students attempted to take the tests, the Department of Education said Monday.

Citing testing provider American Institutes for Research, the state education department said the hack, which is being investigated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, "will not compromise student performance on the test or any personal student data."

Eighth, ninth and tenth graders attempting to take the writing portion of the Florida Standards Assessments were met with blank white screens on Thursday. The education department now says the white screens were part of a denial-of-service attack on a vendor login server.

There were "sporadic" reports of similar hacks on Monday and Tuesday.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart said her department will work with law enforcement "to ensure they identify the bad actors and hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law."

More here.

March 07, 2015

How a charter school was born -- and Jeb Bush became Florida's education governor

Libertycity1

After a bruising defeat in the 1994 gubernatorial race, Jeb Bush approached a well-known civil rights leader in Miami with an ambitious plan.

He wanted to open an experimental "charter" school in Liberty City, one of the nation’s poorest communities. And he wanted T. Willard Fair to help.

Fair, the president of the Miami Urban League, was skeptical. Some members of his inner circle suggested Bush was using him for political gain.

The two men met in Miami. Fair assumed it would be nothing more than a photo-op. But it ended up being a 90-minute discussion on the state of Florida’s schools.

"Jeb was genuine," Fair recalled. "You can’t fool me. I’m going to test you too many times."

Two years later, in the summer of 1996, a group of 60 students, donning crisp red uniforms, entered the new Liberty City Charter School. It was the state’s first charter school, and it paved the way for hundreds of others.

There’s no doubt that the experience in building the charter school helped Bush politically, softening his image in advance of his successful 1998 gubernatorial race. But it also sparked a deep interest in education policy that would define his legacy, both as Florida’s governor and later as a leader in the national education reform movement.

"It opened his eyes to aspects of urban issues that he hadn’t thought about before,” said Matthew Corrigan, a University of North Florida political science professor and author of Conservative Hurricane: How Jeb Bush Remade Florida.

As Bush defines himself as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, the story of the Liberty City Charter School is certain to draw attention. It’s a double-edged sword for Bush. Supporters can point to the school’s academic success in boasting Bush’s leadership in education. At the same time, opponents can point to the financial troubles that led to its closing in 2008 as evidence of Bush’s failed education agenda.

More here.

March 05, 2015

Florida lawmakers eye charter schools

Testing isn’t the only closely watched education issue state lawmakers will tackle during the 60-day legislative session.

The Florida House is moving swiftly on a proposal to create a statewide institute to assist with the opening of new charter schools.

The proposal (HB 7037) would also require the immediate termination of any charter school that receives back-to-back Fs from the state. And it would require charter schools to submit monthly financial statements to their school-district sponsors.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Horne, who lobbies for the school-management firm Charter Schools USA, called the bill "long overdue."

"The money saved will far exceed the amount of money you invest in this," he told lawmakers, noting that the institute would help new charter school operators more fully think through their proposals before opening.

The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1448) goes a step further, allowing students to attend any traditional or charter school that has not reached capacity.

Students would not be limited to schools in their home counties, said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, the bill’s sponsor.

Legg, who operates a Pasco County Charter School, said he included the provision because families should have the ability to transfer to specialized programs without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

More here.

Activists: Say 'no' to guns on campus

 

Activists are launching an aggressive campaign against legislative proposals that would allow guns on Florida campuses.

The groups, Everytown for Gun Safety and the Florida chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, have a new television ad that will air across Florida. It features a clip of National Rifle Association Executive Director Wayne LaPierre telling the 1999 NRA convention that schools should be "absolutely gun free."

"What was true then should be true now," the ad says. "So why are Florida's lawmakers trying to allow guns into schools and force them onto college campuses?"

The TV spot references two pieces of legislation, one of which would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college and university properties. The bill (HB 4005/SB 176) has already won the approval of one Senate panel, despite strong objections from Florida State University President John Thrasher and the state Board of Governors.

The other bill (HB 19/SB 180) would allow designated teachers and other school employees to carry concealed weapons on public school campuses.

The NRA has come out in support of both proposals, saying they will increase security on college campuses and at public schools. But Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America believes otherwise.

"Our kids' teachers enter the esteemed profession of education to teach, not to become sharpshooters," said Chryl Anderson, who volunteers with the organization's Florida chapter. "Florida lawmakers should do their jobs, too -- pass laws to keep Floridians safe from gun violence instead doing the bidding of the gun lobby."

In addition to the ad, the group will hold a rally at the Capitol on Monday.

Florida House rolls out testing proposal

The Florida House plans to move quickly on its testing bill, leaders said Thursday.

"We're going to try to get this to the floor as soon as we possibly can so we can alleviate all of the stress and uncertainty in the field," House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O'Toole said.

Her goal: to ensure "the teachers can teach, the students can learn, and the parents can be assured that we know what we're doing." 

The 70-page draft proposal is similar to the version in the Senate. It eliminates a new 11th grade language arts exam, removes the requirement that school districts test every student in every subject, and reduces the extent to which student test performance factors into teacher pay.

It also gives local school districts the flexibility to start school as early as August 10. (Current law says school may start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.)

The House education panel took some testimony on the proposal Thursday morning.

Orange County Schools lobbyist Scott Howat called the bill "an excellent start," but raised questions related to this week's bungled administration of new online tests.

"We know students are rushing through the process, and they are trying to get their work done quickly, thinking they could get kicked off, they could lose their work..." Howat said. "There are some things we could look at, [such as] should we use this as a baseline year or a beta year?"

O'Toole said schools would still be graded based on student performance, though they would not be penalized.

"That is the position at this point in time," she said. "We are going to grade the schools just so we can see where we are at."

The committee plans to vote on the bill Monday.

The House Education panel also heard from state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who the software problems plaguing the new Florida Standards Assessment had been resolved. She noted that testing was ahead of schedule.

"We expect everyone to be completed by the end of next week," she said. 

Florida Association of District Schools Superintendents lobbyist Joy Frank noted that some large school systems were still facing intermittent problems. "These are problems that will be resolved," she said. "I'm confident about that."

Florida Senate panel votes to scale back testing

A plan to scale back testing in Florida schools cleared its first hurdle in the Florida Legislature on Wednesday, winning the approval of the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent, said the bill would "place a lid on too much testing."

But the vote did little to satisfy parent and teacher groups, who say state lawmakers need to take more dramatic action — especially in light of this week’s problem-plagued rollout of the new Florida Standards Assessments.

"What's happening in public schools is criminal, and this bill doesn't do much to help our kids," said Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall.

More here.