Education legislation set to transform Florida schools

Published: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, May 1, 2011 at 9:24 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Largely obscured by the budget and other major issues dominating the capital this year, a series of education bills on the brink of passing the Legislature could bring the biggest transformation of Florida schools in years.

Measures to roll back class-size restrictions, bump up the number of school vouchers, expand charter schools and mandate online classes are all expected to clear both chambers and secure the governor's approval.

Add in a bill already signed by Gov. Rick Scott that ends teacher tenure and ties salaries to student test scores, and add in major cuts to state school spending, and education experts say Florida's public school system will undergo dramatic change.

Long-time education reform advocates say 2011 may represent the full flowering of former Gov. Jeb Bush's education agenda — once bitterly contested by many state lawmakers and now expanding with relative ease in a more solidly conservative Legislature.

“The import of the education bills being considered is really substantial,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a former school superintendent and a strong supporter of Bush's ideas. “I think it's a sea change.”

The state teachers' union has aggressively fought the reforms and many Democrats remain opposed. Sen Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said teachers and public school leaders feel besieged.

“This is an exceptionally aggressive year for education in Florida,” said Montford, a former educator and the CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

But lawmakers show no signs of slowing down.

All of the major education bills are positioned to pass both the House and Senate this week as the Legislature moves rapidly toward adjournment Friday.

Scott has expressed strong support for conservative education reforms.

The bills will:

Mandate online education: Students from kindergarten through high school would be allowed to take any or all of their classes online from schools operated by the state, local districts or charter school companies.

The bill mandates that every high school student in the state take at least one online class. Online schools would be allowed to hire uncertified adjunct instructors.

All statewide student assessments like the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test would be administered online by 2014.

Critics say the online courses are education on the cheap and will erode the quality of public schools. Proponents say the courses provide more options and flexibility.

Roll back class size: 561 different types of classes — including every Advanced Placement and foreign language class — will no longer be considered “core” components of the curriculum, and rules mandating smaller class sizes will no longer apply.

The bill decreases the number of core classes by 66 percent, from 849 to 288 class types. Critics say it is a back-door way to gut Florida's 2002 constitutional amendment limiting class sizes. Proponents — including many Democrats — say it loosens up class-size restrictions that were too rigid and expensive.

Expand charter schools: Designates charter schools with good test scores as “high performing” and allows them to increase enrollment, add grade levels and create new schools with fewer restrictions and oversight. School districts would have less leeway to deny charter school applications.

Increase school vouchers: Florida's McKay Scholarships, which pays for disabled students to attend private schools, would expand to include students with food allergies, asthma, attention deficit disorder and other conditions less severe than the current standards. By some estimates, more than 50,000 new students would qualify.

Another voucher program that helps poor students attend private schools would be primed for significantly more funding under a separate voucher bill.

Corporations will be able to donate 100 percent of their state tax bill to the scholarship program, instead of 75 percent under current law. The bill also gives scholarship administrators access to a list of the state's top 100 corporate taxpayers to solicit more funds.

Require merit pay and an end to teacher tenure: A bill already approved by lawmakers and signed by the governor earlier this year makes it easier for school districts to fire low-performing teachers and ties teacher salaries to student test scores. Teachers aggressively fought the new rules.

Many of these issues — vouchers, charter schools, class size, teacher evaluations — have sparked epic legislative battles in Florida over the last decade. Passing a bill on any one of the issues would have been considered a major achievement in years past.

That so many education reforms are passing in one year with relatively little opposition or publicity speaks to the preponderance of high-profile issues — from restructuring the Florida Supreme Court to cracking down on illegal immigration and closing a $4 billion budget gap — occupying lawmakers and the expanded conservative majorities in the Legislature.

“These are mammoth changes, but folks have been very distracted by the scope of other issues out there,” said Kevin Watson, a lobbyist with the state teachers' union.

Another factor speeding the reforms is the changing attitude of many top Democrats. President Barack Obama recently voiced support for teacher merit pay and expanding charter schools. Obama and Bush appeared together at a Miami high school in March to promote federal education reforms.

Even the loosening of Florida's class-size limits — long considered a line in the sand for Florida Democrats who consider smaller class sizes one of the party's signature school reforms — is now drawing broad support as a money-saving measure for struggling school districts. Only one Democratic senator voted against rolling back the class-size restrictions last week.

Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston, said the class-size bill has some flaws but added: “I think we all agree that there needed to be some flexibility.”

Other issues like charter schools and limited voucher programs have attained a certain comfort level with some Democrats after strong resistance when Bush first introduced many of the ideas in Florida a decade ago. The Bush-era education clashes have increased lawmakers' familiarity with reform ideas and softened some of the opposition.

“I am very much in favor of a strong public school system but within the scope of that there's room for all kinds of variations,” said Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, who supports more vouchers for disabled students. “I support more choices for parents.”

The Bush years serve as a backdrop for much of the Legislature's 2011 education agenda. The former governor is credited with helping to boost Florida's school system in national rankings, and he continues to influence the debate by traveling around the country promoting Florida's reforms.

But Bush also benefited from a booming economy that allowed consistent increases in education spending during his two terms. And his reforms coincided with the class-size law, leading some to question which change had a larger impact on student performance.

As classes grow more crowded and funding decreases, school districts will be under intense pressure to increase student performance with fewer resources.

“I think they're overreaching,” Watson said. “And I'm not sure it won't backfire.”

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