March 18, 2015

Florida House votes to scale back testing in schools

Seeking to ease the pressure on schoolchildren — and quell the growing backlash from parents — the Florida House voted unanimously Wednesday to scale back testing in public schools.

The proposal (HB 7069) eliminates an 11th-grade English test and a requirement that local school districts create tests in every subject not covered by the new Florida Standards Assessment.

It also allows the school year to begin as early as August 10.

"The purpose of this is for us to be able to continue our improvement," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake.

The House declined, however, to suspend school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments, as superintendents, teachers and parents had requested.

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal supported by parents that would have given all students the option to take pencil-and-paper tests.

"We had an opportunity to do more and we failed to do that," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

The state Senate is also considering a plan to scale back testing (SB 616), though it contains significant differences.

For one, the Senate version limits the amount of time students can spend on state-mandated tests. It also allows school districts to use this year's FSA scores for diagnostic purposes only in light of widespread technical problems.

Testing has been a hot-button issue in recent months, with parents across the state saying Florida’s testing program puts too much stress on students.

The outcry has only grown louder since software problems and an alleged cyber attack plagued this month’s roll out of the new web-based Florida Standards Assessments.

March 17, 2015

Florida Senate pitches modest increase in education funding

via @jeffsolochek

The Florida Senate education appropriations subcommittee has released its budget plan, just one day after the House unveiled its version.

The Senate proposal includes a 3 percent increase in per student funding, to $7,122.85. That's just slightly below the House recommendation of $7,130, a number aimed at setting a historic level (not accounting for inflation).

But like the House, the Senate comes in short of the $7,176 that Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

Senate education appropriations chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, explained that when Scott wrote his budget, the state expected to get full funding for its Medicaid Low Income Pool (LIP) program. But that's not happening, Gaetz noted, so the legislative plans must look different.

The state also has seen enrollment rise by about 25,000 students, Gaetz said, and that further impacts the amount of money available.

As an overview, he said, the Senate proposes increasing K-12 public education by $745 million, K-12 private education programs by $4.3 million, Florida colleges by $57 million, and the State University System by $72 million. It would decrease funding to Voluntary Prekindergarten and private higher education programs.

The plan also would more than double the amount for personal learning scholarships, or vouchers, for students with disabilities. And it would double performance-based funding for universities.

These recommendations led Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to celebrate that the budget represents opportunity and accountability.

Gaetz noted that the proposal comes with cuts. Those include elimination of some non-recurring programs that could not account well for the money they received in the past.

He said he and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, sought information to justify the expenses before making the proposal.

"In light of having less money than we thought," Gaetz said he asked others, "what are the most important things we can do?"

The committee plans to review conforming language and a proviso when it meets on Thursday.

Florida House unveils its recommended education budget

It's that time of the year when the budget committees roll out their proposals.

Among the first to debut: the Florida House's recommended $21.1 billion education budget.

(You can find Chairman Erik Fresen’s proposal here.)

The overall figure represents a $708 million -- or 3.5 percent -- increase over last year’s spending on public schools.

"Education state funding exceeds any previous year," Fresen pointed out Monday.

The House wants to spend roughly $7,130 per student -- an increase of $215, or 3.1 percent, over the current spending level.

That figure would fall short of Gov. Rick Scott's goal: $7,176 for 2015-16.

But it would still top the high watermark set in 2007-08 by about $4 (not accounting for inflation).

Fresen called the number "historic."

The House proposal also includes $80 million for classroom technology.

Among the other highlights:

The State University System would see an additional $157 million, plus $100 million for performance funding and $10 million for the state's two preeminent universities: Florida State and the University of Florida.

The Florida College System would see its budget increase by $28.6 million.

And the overall funding for Voluntary Pre-K would stay the same, despite a projected dip in enrollment. 

March 16, 2015

Senate panel approves controversial campus guns bill

Despite vehement opposition from college presidents, campus police chiefs and the university system's Board of Governors, the Senate Higher Education panel on Monday approved a proposal that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses.

The party-line vote took place after 60 minutes of emotional public testimony.

Harrison DuBosar, director of the Florida State University Office of Governmental Affairs, said the student senate had voted unanimously to oppose the bill.

"Our police department, back in November, [had] an incredible response and ensured the safety of our students," DuBosar said, referencing a campus shooting that left two students and one FSU employee injured. "That could have ended entirely different if many students on campus were carrying their guns."

But Rebecca Hargrove, a member of Students for Concealed Carry at Florida State, said she and other adult students with concealed weapons permits should be allowed to protect themselves. She pointed out that many of the emergency blue light telephones on campus are broken.

"We aren't wards of the university," Hargrove said. "We are citizens of the United States."

Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer echoed her comments.

"The plain truth is campuses are not safe," Hammer said. "They are gun-free zones where murders and rapists may commit their crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims."

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he supported the bill because he had not seen evidence that it would lead to more suicides or crime.

"In the absence of evidence, one is left with the Constitution of the United States," he said.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, also voted in favor of the proposal, but with a caveat.

"I'd like to look at the idea of further training for those individuals," he said.

After the vote, FSU Police Chief David Perry said he was both "disappointed and concerned."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she had hoped "common sense would prevail." 

"This is not the place to have guns," she said.

Joyner offered her own explanation for the vote: "The NRA rules."

The bill (SB 176) has two more stops in the Senate: the Judiciary and Rules committees.  

Legislator blames testing woes only on cyber attack

On day 1 of the new computerized standardized tests in Florida, students and administrators across the state couldn’t log on to the tests, forcing some districts to postpone the assessments.

The problems that started March 2 spanned the state and hit Florida's largest counties including Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough. Initial reports were that it was a technical glitch in the hands of the testing vendor, American Institutes for Research.

But by the end of the week, state law enforcement were also investigating a cyber security attack. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho would later call it a "catastrophic meltdown," and the testing problems added more fuel to the fire about Florida’s focus on tests.

During a House Education Appropriations Committee meeting March 12, chairwoman and state Rep. H. Marlene O'Toole, R-Lady Lake, put the blame solely on the cyber attack.

"On the testing problems, many of you may have read in the media, that the problem was not that of a vendor, the problem was not that of the test materials itself, it was the product of a cyber attack," she said. O’Toole’s claim suggested that the sole problem was the cyber attack, but that conflicted with news reports and information provided by the state Department of Education.

Turn to PolitiFact Florida to see how we rated this claim. 

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.