By Ryan Dailey ©2023 The News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE — A slate of bills aimed at reducing regulations on public schools began moving forward Wednesday, as a key Florida Senate panel signed off on changes such as eliminating testing requirements for earning high-school diplomas.
The Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee unanimously approved the bills (SPB 7000, SPB 7002 and SPB 7004), which are filed for the 2024 legislative session.
Committee Chairman Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, held up a printed copy of Florida’s education code during Wednesday’s meeting, pointing out to the audience that the book is “3 ½ inches thick.”
“I appreciate all the hard work that’s gone into this summer looking through the code and finding ways that we can ease the burden on what’s going on with our parents, our students and our folks in our districts,” Simon said.
The bill that received the most public comment during Wednesday’s meeting was SPB 7004, which deals with issues such as assessments, accountability and school choice.
The 52-page measure, in part, would repeal requirements that high-school students pass the state’s standardized English-language arts exam in 10th grade and pass the Algebra I end-or-course assessment to receive high-school diplomas. Under the current system, students also can satisfy the requirements by earning comparative scores on certain other standardized tests.
Several school superintendents, including Baker County Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson, voiced support for parts of the bills, such as the testing requirement changes.
“There are thousands of amazing students with good grades who are being impacted negatively because of the requirements that were passed for certain tests, despite their ability to demonstrate their academic ability over 13, 14 years of being in our classrooms,” Raulerson told the Senate panel.
Pinellas County Superintendent Kevin Hendrick also backed that proposal, saying “it can transform our workforce as a state.”
But the Foundation for Florida’s Future, a group chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush that has long been influential on education issues, raised concerns about some of the proposed changes.
“The foundation is committed to the goal of removing unnecessary, duplicative and outdated regulations on Florida’s public schools, but we do not want to see Florida take a step backward,” Nathan Hoffman, senior legislative director for the organization, said in a prepared statement. “Now is not the time for Florida to soften its position on policies that have played key roles in contributing to two decades of educational progress. Prior to these core policies, nearly half of Florida’s fourth graders had significant reading deficiencies. Similarly, half of Florida’s fourth graders were significantly below grade level in math. Only half of high school students graduated on time.”
The bill also includes changing part of state law that sets a standard for students to advance to the fourth grade. Third-grade students must score high enough on an English-language arts exam to reach the next grade level. The proposal would add what is known as a “good cause exemption” that would give parents a say in whether their students stay in third grade or move to fourth grade.
Under the bill, a student not scoring adequately on the third-grade English-language arts test would have to be retained unless “the parent determines retention is not in the best interest of the student and approves a good cause exemption” that would involve reading interventions in fourth grade.
Another hot-button issue included in the bill involves requirements for school recess. The measure would provide flexibility to districts about the way schools structure the 100 required minutes of recess per week. Currently, elementary schools are required to have 20 consecutive minutes of recess each day.
Angie Gallo, an Orange County School Board member, addressed the panel Wednesday and urged leaving current recess requirements in place.
Gallo argued that “in order for (recess) to really be a benefit, it has to be 20 minutes, consecutive, unstructured recess play.”
“That’s when the child gets the full benefit to their mental health, they’re able to focus more on academics, it gives them an opportunity to learn life skills,” Gallo said.
Proposals also would make changes involving teachers and other school employees.
For example, one of the bills, SPB 7000, would repeal part of a law related to salary schedules for teachers.
It would remove a requirement that the “annual salary adjustment under the performance salary schedule for an employee rated as highly effective must be at least 25 percent greater than the highest annual salary adjustment available to an employee of the same classification through any other salary schedule adopted by the district.”
Meanwhile, one of the bills, SPB 7002, is aimed at providing financial flexibility to districts. The bill, for example, would reduce financial reporting requirements on school districts in good financial standing and provide flexibility to school boards in spending federal money.