Florida lawmakers have approved a new pilot program to test competency-based education at public schools in four Florida counties.
HB 1365 sets up the five-year program starting next school year in Pinellas, Palm Beach, Lake and Seminole counties, as well as at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott still needs to sign it into law.
The program seeks to let students advance through school if they can prove they've mastered what they should be learning.
St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the bill's sponsors, heralds it as "the future of education."
"I’m excited that Florida is taking the first step down that road of competency-based learning," he said.
However, critics fear that the program will "data-mine" students by collecting information on them, while also perpetuating a culture of standardized testing.
"This particular program puts us back into a space that we’re relying on a computer-based test," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said. "It sounds great but you have a situation where you have those who can make it and those who cannot because of their inability to function on a computer."
Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays -- who has been outspoken about the state education system's reliance on testing -- also opposed it.
"Many times we’re led into a trap by cute phrases that describe programs that have some underlying issues, and this is no exception to that," Hays said. "You need to watch very carefully the kind of data mining that's done, (and) how much information are they getting on that individual student. Sometimes it's nobody else’s business and certainly not the business of the public."
Several other Democrats said they support the program, because they want to see first whether it works.
"We don’t want unintended consequences, we don’t want children’s privacy invaded, we just want it done right," Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said.
The bill passed the Senate on Thursday, 31-6. Those who opposed it were Hays, Bullard and Republican Sens. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, Charlie Dean of Inverness and Travis Hutson, of Elkton.
It also passed the House last month, 100-13, with some opposition from Democrats.
The Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida's Future -- which lobbied for the program -- praised the Legislature for approving HB 1365.
"Rather than tailoring education to meet both the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, we force them to conform to a system in which they all are expected to master the same subjects in the same way and in the same amount of time," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque said in a statement. "Competency-based learning addresses this flaw by allowing students to progress at a personalized pace. ... This customized approach reduces boredom, frustration and failure.”