Florida Lawmakers Begin Stacking Up Education Agenda
Florida lawmakers will deal with the pandemic’s impact on education when they reconvene in Tallahassee in March. Among the issues: a steep drop in student attendance, growing concerns about learning losses and a Republican effort to consolidate the state’s school choice programs.
That's about how many fewer students are enrolled in public schools this year. It's also a number that could determine everything from school funding to how the state should count student test scores, and it's a figure that's weighing heavily on the minds of lawmakers that will have to come up with plans to address COVID-19's impact on education.
School districts have been searching for those missing children since classes resumed in August. Some may be homeschooled but didn’t fill out the right paperwork. Others may have moved away. Some parents may have chosen to sit out their child’s kindergarten year, the district's still aren't quire sure.
“That’s an existential threat to the state," House K-12 Appropriations Chairman Randy Fine said in an interview with the Florida Channel. Fine says it's his "top priority" to find a way to resolve it.
That 90,000 fewer students means less money for schools, which are funded based on the number of kids enrolled. Education makes up the bulk of general revenue spending, and Florida is more than $2.7 billion in the red for the upcoming fiscal year. Legislative leaders are looking for places to cut and Fine says education funding is going to have to be adjusted.
The state is also grappling with how to deal with the more than 3 million kids still in school. Morea than 60 percent are back in regular classrooms, but the rest are still learning remotely. There remains unequal access to technologies that enable distance learning, and teachers are having to conduct both in-person and remote classes simultaneously. There's growing worry about whether students are actually learning anything and increasing fears about how much students may have lost when schools closed abruptly last Spring, coupled with the challenges they're facing now.
Enter standardized testing.
Many local school administrators are not optimistic for the results. Some have privately told their teachers and schools not to worry—and to just do their best. In Florida, those tests are tied to school grades, student promotion and teacher retention. The Florida Department of Education waived those accountability rules last year, but it’s unclear whether that will happen again.
Weston Democratic Rep. Robin Bartleman wants the state to not put much stock into the results.
“This is no different from what happened at the end of last year because of the pandemic," Bartleman said during a recent conversation with reporters to roll out a bill that would suspend the state's school accountability system for a year. "As I speak to school board members across the state…this is something everyone can buy into. It's about helping kids. We’re not saying don’t assess them. We’re just saying use the accountability system differently.”
Bartleman and Fort Lauderdale Democratic Sen. Perry Thurston are pushing a bill that would require the state to waive the impacts of the assessments, and to just use them as a baseline.
Florida has no remote testing option, and in order for tests to count, 95% of students at a school have to be tested—a problem for schools that still have a significant number of students learning remotely. The state is in a tough spot too—if it announces tests won’t count, there’s concern students may not take them seriously, skewing results. In response to a request for comment, the Florida department of Education sent a statement saying in part “Florida’s districts and schools have proven operating schools and administrating assessments can be done safely.”
Even as lawmakers prepare to haggle over testing and education funding, an emergent proposal already has people taking sides. Republican Sen. Manny Diaz calls it an effort to make school choice programs easier to navigate. The proposal expands eligibility for voucher programs. Democrats are worried about how these new converged programs will be funded—straight out of the state’s main public school funding mechanism, the FEFP.
“The death-knell for public education is by including this in the FEFP. That’s what we’re getting ready to do today. History will show that that was the downfall of public education," Thurston said during a committee hearing on the bill.
Diaz’s plan allows families to use the money they’re granted for taxpayer-backed education savings accounts. Those education savings accounts have long been championed by school choice proponents. The consolidation plan merges the McKay Scholarship with the Gardner Scholarship to simplify programs for kids with disabilities. It also would combine the HOPE scholarship for bullied kids, with the longstanding Corporate Tax Scholarship program and the Family Empowerment scholarship for middle-income families.
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