Today's news -- February 20, 2017





Lawmakers call for major education overhaul

Florida should scrap some of its standardized tests, drop some teacher evaluation requirements and revamp part of its school grading formula -- in short, undo some of the key educational reforms it imposed on public schools in the past decade, two state senators say. The pair filed a bill this week that would make significant changes to Florida’s school testing system, ones with far more impact than those announced by three other lawmakers Tuesday. The latest bill (SB 964) would delete five exams from Florida’s testing stable, require a paper-and-pencil alternative for online exams and allow districts to use national tests -- presumably the ACT or SAT among them -- in place of the 10th-grade language arts section of the Florida Standards Assessments. These proposals have all been pushed by Florida’s school superintendents, who say testing requirements are too extensive and take up too much class time. The tests to be deleted would be the ninth-grade language arts FSA and then end-of-course exams in algebra 2, civics, geometry and U.S. history. End-of-course exams for algebra 1 and biology would remain, as would FSA language arts and math exams for students in grades 3 to 8 and the language arts test in grade 10. The tenth-grade exam, however, could be replaced by a national test. The education commissioner would have to provide school districts a list of “nationally recognized high school assessments” that school districts could be swapped for that FSA exam. The bill also says testing in high schools “must be implemented in a way that does not substantially disrupt instruction or displace students from using a classroom computer that is needed for instruction.” The bill was filed by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, also executive director of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah. Like the bills announced earlier, the new proposal also pushes back most testing until the end of the school year. Under the current schedule, testing starts in late February, runs for a week, then picks up again in late March and runs through mid-May. That schedule cuts into time students would better spend on their lessons, many educators and parents say. Unlike the others, the newest bill also tackles two other controversial issues, teacher evaluations and Florida’s A-to-F school grading system. The bill would end state oversight of teacher evaluations and delete controversial rules that tie evaluations to students’ test-score results, both of which were ushered in by Florida’s 2011 teacher-merit pay law. School grading provisions that made it tougher for public schools to earn good marks also would be done away with under the bill. The Florida Legislature, which has been holding committee meetings this month, starts its next session March 7. Standardized testing in public schools will clearly be an issue lawmakers discuss, though it is far too early to say what changes might be adopted.


Top-down meddling in Florida's schools

Florida legislators frequently preach about the merits of local control -- except when it comes to public schools. Whether it's playground time or testing requirements, lawmakers regularly push new requirements that micromanage county school districts and classroom teachers. This year is no different, as efforts to require daily recess in elementary grades and force tests toward the end of the school year gain steam. But top-down policies tend to have unintended consequences. A bill requiring daily recess for elementary school students that failed last year is back, driven largely by parents who know first-hand the benefits of unstructured play time for their youngsters. Free play outdoors is undoubtedly valuable, allowing kids to burn off energy, take a mental break from instruction and navigate social interactions with less adult guidance. It's understandable that parents are frustrated by school districts sacrificing recess to accommodate other demands on the school day. In Pinellas County, some elementary kids get recess only twice a week. But ordering daily recess time without easing up on other requirements would further tie the hands of districts and schools to best serve their students. No one is suggesting lengthening the school day, so adding recess means something else goes away. What would that be? Test prep? Reading circle? Art class? Similarly, a new school choice law allowing children to transfer to any public school with space available, even in a different county, has created unforeseen issues. Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties already were allowing such transfers through local agreements, but the new law requires that in-county students get first priority. That is logical, but it also means more shuffling and the possibility of accepting fewer out-of-county transfers. In high-growth districts like Orange County, only a small fraction of schools are even open for transfers and none of them are top-rated, making them less attractive to parents. So a law meant to expand choice is having questionable impact in some areas and complicating student transfers that were working fine in the Tampa Bay area. But nowhere are Tallahassee's dictates more palpable than in the high-stakes testing culture that permeates public schools. Florida's testing regime is so onerous that students are now taking "end of course" assessments in March. Prompted by an overly permissive era in which students too often were promoted regardless of learning gains, the pendulum swung way too far in the other direction toward high-stakes testing, sparking backlash from teachers and rebellion by parents. Lawmakers are belatedly recalibrating. A bill filed last week narrows the testing window for some exams in hopes that school districts will cut back on the volume of tests. It's not substantial reform, and it could make the last weeks of school even more high-pressure for students. But it is another sign legislators have gotten the message. State government should set broad education policy and minimum standards for public schools, then allow the local control lawmakers so often promote. Instead, they too often act as school principals. When Tallahassee decides how long and how often recess should be and whether recess can be used as a discipline tool, that is micromanaging from the top down.


Merit pay (still) doesn't work


Recognition money for top-rated and improving schools drops 36 percent statewide


Nearly every teacher in Manatee receives high marks on annual evaluation (Pat Barber quoted)


Old habits die hard, even as Hillsborough strains to cut its schools budget


Experts alert about risk of lead exposure; suggest testing schools' drinking water


DeVos: Critics want to “make my life a living hell”

In her first full week as U.S. education secretary, Betsy DeVos wasted no time in getting to work to try to explain her vision for education and the U.S. Education Department — and to go after her critics, saying they want to make her life “a living hell.” She also said she has identified people in the department who want her to fail, but vowed not to let them. Her nomination by President Trump sparked an unprecedented backlash, and she was confirmed on Feb. 7 in the Senate only after Vice President Pence cast the first-ever vote to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee. Her backers see her as a champion of school choice and alternatives to traditional public schools, while opponents say her decades of advocacy work show that she wants to privatize the public education system. She was met with protests at the first D.C. public school she visited as education secretary, and the San Diego Board of Education decided not to vote on a resolution to invite her to visit the city’s public schools. In a speech and several interviews, DeVos made clear that she is planning to push the expansion of school choice -- charter schools, voucher programs and other alternatives to traditional public schools. In an interview with Axios, excerpts of which were published on Feb. 17, she said: “I expect there will be more public charter schools. I expect there will be more private schools. I expect there will be more virtual schools. I expect there will be more schools of any kind that haven’t even been invented yet.” The one thing she said she didn’t expect more of was traditional public schools. As far as the role of the federal government in education, she said: “I think in some of the areas around protecting students and ensuring safe environments for them, there is a role to play. … I mean, when we had segregated schools and when we had a time when, you know, girls weren’t allowed to have the same kind of sports teams — I mean, there have been important inflection points for the federal government to get involved.” But when asked whether there are any other issues in which the federal government should intervene, she said: “I can’t think of any now.” As to whether the Education Department should be eliminated, she said: “It would be fine with me to have myself worked out of a job, but I’m not sure that — I’m not sure that there will be a champion movement in Congress to do that.” In an interview with conservative columnist Cal Thomas published on Feb. 16, the Michigan billionaire blasted protesters for the second time in the same week, saying they are “sponsored and very carefully planned” and not “genuine protests.” “We’ve seen enough written that they want to make my life a living hell. They also don’t know what stock I come from. I will not be deterred from my mission in helping kids in this country.”

Thomas also wrote this: DeVos believes that not teaching values and character development in our relativistic and politically correct age is a “significant factor” contributing to lack of achievement in many schools. She also says she has found a few “moles” (my word) in the department who are committed to her not succeeding and pledges to do whatever can be done to render them ineffective. And DeVos, who said in a 2015 speech that “government sucks,” told Thomas that no “top-down solution” in government works: “I think the more states and locales are empowered to innovate and create and are unencumbered by unnecessary regulations and sort of beaten into compliance mentally vs. a can-do and results-oriented mentality, it’s been repeatedly demonstrated that any type of top-down solution, no matter where you try to employ it in government, it’s not successful.” On Feb. 15, she gave a speech at the Magnet Schools of America 2017 National Policy Training Conference and the first thing she talked about wasn’t magnet schools but protesters: “Last Friday, a handful of protesters tried to block my entrance into Jefferson Middle School Academy here in D.C. While I eventually made it in, and had very constructive conversations with Chancellor Wilson, many DC administrative leaders, some terrific teachers and Principal Dohmann, the protesters’ behavior is a reflection of the way some seek to treat our education system — by keeping kids in and new thinking out. “Friday’s incident demonstrates just how hostile some people are to change and to new ideas.”


DeVos criticized teachers at D.C. school -- and they are not having it


Michigan, under DeVos influence, declines sharply on NAEP


DeVos being guarded by U.S. Marshals Service


DeVos’ interviews show a willingness to cut the Department of Education


Team Trump rewrites a Department of Energy website for kids


Don't turn back the clock on Florida colleges

Florida's state colleges -- once known as community colleges -- are the primary access point to higher education for many high school graduates. But an effort championed by Senate leaders would hinder state colleges' ability to add programs and respond to workforce demands. After opening up the possibilities for colleges, turning the clock back to limit them would be a mistake. In 2008, the Legislature authorized community colleges to offer four-year degrees in fields where demand is high for professionals, such as nursing and teaching. The institutions were renamed "state colleges," and they followed St. Petersburg College's lead in offering baccalaureate degrees. The system has built-in checks, including restrictions such as limiting four-year degrees to fields that lead directly to jobs rather than liberal arts degrees in areas such as history or English. Neighboring universities and private colleges could weigh in on proposals and object if the community colleges were trying to start duplicative programs. In Pinellas County, the relationship between SPC and USF St. Petersburg works well. SPC president Bill Law calls it "the best public policy I've ever been associated with." USF St. Petersburg chancellor Sophia Wisniewska calls SPC "a longstanding and a valuable partner." That is why some aspects of the Senate's College Competitiveness Act, SB 374, seem like solutions in search of problems. The bill would extend the notice period from 100 days to a year that state colleges must provide for proposing new four-year programs and eliminate the requirement for a university to suggest alternatives if it objects to the college's plan. It would establish a new governing board to oversee state colleges. And in the name of avoiding "wasteful duplication" of degree programs, it would cap state college enrollment in four-year programs at 8 percent of the student body. But wasteful duplication is difficult to find, especially with enrollment in state college bachelor's programs up 102 percent since 2011. With demand so high, why limit them? Senate leaders cite "mission creep" as a concern, arguing state colleges may be losing sight of their primary role -- to provide access to higher education and workforce readiness -- while intruding on the purpose of universities. But state colleges, 28 of them, serve many parts of the state with no nearby university -- Marianna, Daytona Beach, Fort Pierce. Their students are older, on average, than university undergrads and many are mid-career, seeking a degree that will help them earn advancement. Often balancing work and family, many are not enrolled full time. That's a very different profile from the fresh high school graduate heading off to Tallahassee ready to assume a full course load.

The bill does not make sense cost-wise, either. A state college degree is considerably cheaper than a university degree. But by limiting the availability of programs at state colleges, students would be forced to pay more and assume more debt. Senate leaders have big plans for higher education in the legislative session that begins next month. They've offered smart ideas to expand financial aid and help students graduate faster and save money, backed by a promised $1 billion investment over two years. But revamping Florida's state college system is an unnecessary part of the plan. These institutions are serving a specific student population, turning out career-ready graduates and doing it for a bargain. Imposing new, arbitrary barriers on their growth would be a regrettable reversal that would hamper access and affordability for students.


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Scott paints fellow Republicans as job-killers for votes


The fight over Enterprise Florida is a power play -- and millions are at stake


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Ex-Enterprise Florida head says House GOP video misleading


Local officials caught in the middle as governor, House debate incentives


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Harrison stuck between Tallahassee powers


“High crime” tax breaks used by Universal could be eliminated


Bogus “meetings” bill deserves quick death


House speaker sues Florida Lottery over contract


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Drop bill to intimidate, shutter safe, law-abiding abortion providers


Court right to keep abortion waiting period on hold


House Republicans writing health care plan ahead of any federal changes


Florida non-profit hospitals face serious funding cuts


Florida bills would resolve mail-in ballot 'signature mismatch'


Stay alert to stop voter suppression


Trump attacks “dishonest media”, makes false claims at campaign rally


Fact-checking Trump’s rally in Florida


Trump claims he “inherited a mess.” Actually, things were pretty great.


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On economic arrogance


Does Finland have a solution to automation, fewer jobs and lower wages?


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Florida should stand with, not abandon, refugees


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Mexican consulates flooded with fearful immigrants


Trump proposes including Chinese visitors in social media checks


Breaking the anti-immigrant fever


Southern Poverty Law Center finds disturbing growth in anti-Muslim hate groups


When lies overruled rights


The social scientific case against a Muslim ban


Guantánamo policy is in limbo, waits for Trump


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Simply stated, Gorsuch is steadfast and surprising


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Trump, an outsider demanding loyalty, struggles to fill top posts


Trump’s Labor pick has a history of attacking voting rights


Labor nominee’s role in sex case could draw scrutiny


Senate confirms Pruitt as EPA head


Environment Florida: Pruitt won’t protect Florida’s air, water or families


Pruitt, Trump's EPA head, is going to be very bad for Miami


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Trump calls the media “the enemy of the American people”


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Trump called the media “the enemy.” Priebus says he meant it.


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“That’s how dictators get started”: McCain on Trump for calling media “the enemy”


McCain becomes critic in chief of the Trump administration


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Fox News anchor warns viewers: Trump crossed the line in latest attack on media


Could reporters be hunted down if Trump goes after leakers?


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Congress keeps Trump grounded


A worry on the right that Trump’s conservative acts are fleeting


President Trump, White House apprentice


Holding Trump accountable


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