Today's news -- January 12, 2017




Senate panel considers ending some testing policies *

After years of pressure from educators and parents, Florida lawmakers are pushing to overhaul standardized testing requirements in public schools that began under former Gov. Jeb Bush. Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the chamber’s K-12 budget committee, aims to propose legislation that would cut down on both the money and time spent on testing. Based on testimony from superintendents during a meeting on Wednesday, Simmons is considering several legislative changes. For example, he’s likely to propose eliminating five high school exams that are not required by the federal government but are mandated in state law. They are end-of-course exams in ninth-grade English, U.S. history, civics, algebra and geometry. He also supports providing school districts more flexibility in whether to offer tests on computers or on paper.  Computer testing is time consuming because schools have limited numbers of devices for students to use. When students take turns using computers for testing, assessments take weeks to administer. During that time, students are often unable to use computers for other educational needs. However, computer-based exams deliver results to teachers more quickly and can be less expensive. Simmons envisions allowing districts to use a mix of both. "There are good things about computer tests. There are good things about paper-and-pencil. And I am sure we don’t have to do just one or the other," he said. Also, Simmons is open to legislation that would allow students to take nationally recognized tests in lieu of state exams, a proposal that former Republican Sen. Don Gaetz pushed unsuccessfully during last year's legislative session. Simmons stressed he was committed to Florida’s accountability system, largely established by Bush. The former Republican presidential candidate’s policies evaluate students, teachers, schools and districts based on state exams. Bush and his supporters have argued the accountability system led to tremendous improvement in Florida’s public schools during the last two decades. Simmons said the “common sense” changes he plans to pursue would address superintendents’, teachers’ and parents’ concerns — without dismantling Bush’s legacy. There was a tense moment during the meeting when a former Senate president blamed an education reform foundation founded and led by Bush for pushing lawmakers to adopt testing policies that have caused a backlash from educators and parents. Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican who led the chamber while Bush was governor and has clashed with him at times, argued the state should exempt high-performing students from some state exams. Foundation for Florida’s Future policy director Shan Goff presented several proposals for testing changes that the organization supports, including moving state testing from early spring to the last three weeks of the school year to minimize teaching disruption. After she spoke, Lee said he thought her presentation showed the foundation “is evolving” as a result of pushback from educators and parents, a change he found “refreshing.” Then he pushed her to explain why students who perform well on the SAT and ACT should take state exams. “We are forcing kids and their families to take our tests, mandated by our government,” Lee said. “They are already hitting it out of the park on any nationally recognized metric that we can identify, and we won’t back off. Why won’t we back off?” Goff pointed out that existing state law allows students to use equivalent scores on certain national tests in place of state exam scores. She also said the organization wanted to work with lawmakers on solutions to testing programs that don’t lower graduation requirements.  He responded, saying the state’s current testing requirement “are only here because your organization has driven them here,” he said.  “We are here because your organization has locked this Legislature down. You can’t get a bill out of this Legislature that isn’t supported by the Foundation for Florida’s Future. And that’s what I tell very parent in my district. And that’s not a bad thing — you guys have been a great organization. But we’re only in this place because of you,” he said.

With such broad support, Simmons said he intended to have staff look further into the recommendations for possible action. He noted that the savings in teacher time alone by shortening the testing window could be "incredible." The committee next plans to look into the topics of teacher pay, longer school days, recess and member requests for funding.


Did state just take a turn toward sanity on education? *

The following is a brief, and rare, burst of exuberance. It is probably naive and, based on the history of political foolishness in this state, is almost certainly premature. Yet here it goes: Hallelujah! Something happened in Tallahassee on Wednesday that was sensible, constructive and a little bit courageous. In other words, something completely out of the ordinary. A panel of school superintendents spoke their minds, in some cases forcefully, about Florida's glut of standardized tests. Even more remarkably, senators seemed to listen. "We've hit the grand slam. We have superintendents, teachers, students and parents who are very, very frustrated," said Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Pensacola. "I'm concerned, after all these years of testing, what kind of product are we delivering to our colleges and universities." To answer the senator's question: not very impressive. The state will engage in Cirque du Soleil-style manipulations to make it appear results have climbed high, but the truth is Florida still lags behind on college-bound tests. Now it's important, when comparing scores on the SAT and ACT, to stipulate the percentage of students taking the test because scores typically go down when more students are involved. Florida, for instance, is one of 10 states to have between 70 and 80 percent of students take the SAT. And how did Florida rank against its peers? It finished ninth out of 10. The ACT results are similar. The point is that Florida's obsession with accountability has done more to enrich testing companies than to enlighten children's minds.


Senate pitches major higher education changes

The Florida Senate on Wednesday released a wide-ranging plan to reshape higher education in the state, including an expansion of Bright Futures scholarships, block tuition for universities, stronger requirements for students to graduate on time and a program to attract high-quality faculty. The bills (SB 2 and SB 4) embody initiatives advanced by Senate President Joe Negron, a Stuart Republican who toured all 12 Florida university campuses in the spring. "These bills are key components of a comprehensive higher education agenda that will boost the strength and competitiveness of our state's higher education system as our primary economic engine to drive vibrant, sustainable economic development and growth in high-paying jobs," Negron said in a statement. Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee on higher education, will take the lead on the legislation. Galvano said the bills "will elevate the prominence of our state universities and increase their ability to compete as national destination institutions, while preserving access and increasing affordability for Floridians." The Senate released the plan a day after Gov. Rick Scott unveiled a series of proposals aimed primarily at holding down the costs of higher education. Scott's proposals include capping student fees, eliminating sales taxes on textbook purchases and extending Bright Futures scholarships to summer classes. One major element of the Senate initiative is an emphasis on scholarships and student aid, with Negron saying every student should "have the opportunity to obtain a higher education, regardless of their economic circumstances." The legislation would increase the top-level award for the merit-based Bright Futures scholarships to cover all tuition and fees and provide a $300 per semester stipend for books. The "academic scholars" program now only covers half of the tuition and fees, which average about $200 per credit hour across the system. Negron's plan would also allow the top-level Bright Futures recipients to use their scholarships for summer classes, which is similar to a proposal by Scott, though the governor wants to expand the summer provision to all levels of the Bright Futures program. The Senate's Bright Futures changes would cost an estimated $151 million.


Florida facing teacher shortage (Karen McCann quoted)


Absences in Duval (Terrie Brady quoted)


Polk charter school administrator accused of stealing more than $100,000


Randi Weingarten doesn’t share Bush embrace of DeVos as education secretary


DeVos: Dangerous for students and the promise of public education (Lily Eskelsen García quoted)


ESSA report raises important issues, leaves more difficult questions unexplored


Justices face “blizzard of words” in special education case


Teachers sue student loan servicer for converting their grants to loans


UNF faculty union president objects to governor’s trustee appointment (John White quoted)


Florida's private sector job growth declines 46 percent in December


Florida paid private prison operator $16 million too much, audit says


Corcoran targets tourism and jobs councils, college foundations


Lawmakers get bad news about Medicaid payment error


Taxpayer cost for legislators’ health care premiums increases


Florida still leads U.S. in foreclosures


In Tampa, Fight for $15 activists to protest Trump labor secretary nominee


Obamacare is one step closer to repeal after Senate advances resolution


Repealing Obamacare: Just what the doctor ordered for wealthy investors


Trump’s Obamacare plan: Still optimistic, still vague


Why most economists are so worried about Trump


Trump’s bogus jobs number


Obama’s moving farewell, Trump’s terrifying hello


Obama's last call to be good citizens


Holder to lead Democrats’ attack on Republican gerrymandering


Trump’s plans on businesses may fall short


Ethics chief blasts Trump’s plan to break from businesses, calling it “meaningless”


Fact-checking what Trump’s lawyer said about the president-elect’s finances


Trump admits to Russian hacking, but attacks U.S. intelligence community


Trump should welcome a bipartisan, transparent hacking investigation


Trump says he has “nothing to do with Russia.” The past 30 years show otherwise.


Was the 2016 U.S. election democratic? Here are seven serious shortfalls.


Trump under fire for invoking Nazis in criticism of U.S. intelligence


In rocky hearing, Tillerson tries to separate from Trump


Rubio gets tough with Tillerson on Russia, calls response “discouraging”


Russia may try framing politicians with crimes, Rubio warns


Tillerson’s foreign policy: Russia first


Sessions claims to be a champion of voting rights, but record suggests otherwise


NAACP head calls Sessions “unfit” to be attorney general


Franken catches Sessions lying about his civil rights record


Booker breaks with tradition, says fellow senator should not be attorney general


Rubio announces support for Sessions


Chao emphasizes private funds for Trump’s promised transportation fixes


Trump bypasses Miller for VA chief


Another Goldman executive is said to be going to Trump administration


Trump promises fast action on Supreme Court nomination


Mexican president: “Of course” Mexico won't pay for wall


How a sensational, unverified dossier became a crisis for Trump


Trump has his own “birther” crisis


After an aggressive news conference, questions linger about Trump’s readiness


Fact Check: Trump’s first news conference since the election




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