Today's news -- March 1, 2017




Testing debate teed up again in Legislature

The testing wars have returned to the Florida Capitol. Two years after widespread computer problems undermined confidence in the state’s new standardized tests and sparked a political firestorm, lawmakers are once again floating ideas to reduce high-stakes exams in Florida schools. Critics of the state’s testing system say that reflects the fact that 2015 legislation has done little to tame complaints that children are spending too much time taking assessments and too little time learning. An “opt-out” movement, which argues that parents should be able to tell their children to refuse to answer questions on high-stakes tests, has pushed its claims into court. Once again, the testing system that was a key part of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education legacy is under siege. “At long last, that pressure has built up so much that even a Legislature that has long been in thrall to Jeb Bush’s foundation … has started to listen,” said Bob Schaeffer, a Florida resident and public-education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of high-stakes exams. As the annual legislative session prepares to start next Tuesday, the battle over testing has been to some extent overshadowed by Senate President Joe Negron’s ambitious plans to overhaul higher education in an effort to boost the state’s 12 public universities. Negron has pledged to increase spending on higher education and enrich scholarship programs. But the testing fight has drawn attention. Even the Foundation for Florida’s Future, established by Bush to help safeguard his legacy, has rallied behind what supporters are calling the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation (HB 773 and SB 926). “We got the message from parents and teachers about how they feel about the testing process, the anxiety that some of their students feel, and really the common-sense approach of what kind of tools they need to make sure that their children and their students are getting a year’s worth of learning in a year’s worth of time,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican scheduled to become speaker of the House after the 2020 elections. That proposal, though, does not explicitly do away with any of the tests causing parents and teachers to complain. It instead focuses on narrowing the teaching window by requiring the state’s language-arts and math tests to be administered in the last three weeks of a school year, with the exception of the 3rd-grade reading exam. It also would require that the scores for any tests used by local school districts be provided to teachers within a week, instead of the month currently allowed by law —- something that could pare down some of those exams. And it calls for the state to conduct a study of whether college-entrance exams are closely aligned with Florida’s high school standards, with an eye on potentially using the entrance exams as at least a partial replacement for the state’s graduation tests. Schaeffer dismissed the legislation as the work of the foundation, which also has a national counterpart, to provide cover in Florida using the same “slogan and lack of content that they’re advocating nationally.” Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate education budget committee, said the current testing window is a real problem. “They’re starting as early as two, three months before the end of school,” Simmons said. “Once a test is administered, there’s not as much of a reason for the classes to be as diligent in teaching the students.” Simmons also said the time unnecessarily spent on tests costs the state $1 billion or more each year. He supports pairing some of the provisions of the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation with a proposal by Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. That measure (SB 964) would get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics. “In order to maintain the integrity of our system, we can’t over-test, and we must test at the right time and we must test in the right amount,” Simmons said. Whether members of the House, who have traditionally been more hesitant to make widespread changes to the testing regime, would go along with those kinds of changes remains to be seen. Speaking at a news conference to introduce the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill, Simmons’ counterpart in the House suggested the overreach of recent years was a distortion of a still-good idea. “It’s important that we continue to measure,” said House PreK-12 Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. “But as things happen in the Legislature, different legislators come in, different ideas get put into place and sometimes, the original intent is lost or it becomes complicated.”


Breakdown delays computer-based FSA testing in Hernando schools


Shuttered “choice” school: Where’s the accountability?

Last month, the Sentinel reported revolting accusations aimed at a local school for special-needs students. Administrators of the private school — funded largely through Florida’s school-voucher programs and Medicaid reimbursements — were accused of defrauding taxpayers out of more than $4 million. Parents said the school took money for therapy treatment that students didn’t receive. And it all came to a head when cops arrested the administrators, leaving the school shuttered and families stranded. As I read the maddening story, I found myself thinking: Can you imagine if such a thing happened at a traditional public school? Politicians would be marching down Main Street, screaming about “failing” schools. But here’s the thing: You wouldn’t see something like this at a traditional public school. It simply couldn’t happen like this. There are too many checks and balances. Traditional schools must hire certified teachers. Their finances are audited. Tests are required. With schools that accept vouchers the same accountability simply isn’t always there. It is one of the ugly realities about school “choice” -- and a blatant hypocrisy among those who preach “accountability” … but mostly for the public schools they demonize. Just ask Billie Jo Cruz. Last summer, Cruz was searching for a school to help her 6-year-old son, Elijah, who had been recently diagnosed with autism. When she found the Heaven Academy in College Park, it seemed perfect with promises of specialized education, therapy and even transportation. “It sounded wonderful,” she said. “They said everything that a parent of any child would want to hear.” But soon, things seemed off. Elijah wasn’t getting the therapy he’d been promised. Cruz couldn’t get proof that his teachers were certified to teach or that his bus driver had passed a background check. She said she learned that one of the administrators had just graduated high school. Cruz, who described herself as a “proactive parent” who visited the school every week, couldn’t get answers to basic questions. She said the last straw came when she saw an invoice for therapy services her son never received. After she refused to authorize the payment, Cruz said the school kicked out her son. A few weeks later, the attorney general’s office arrested the owner and office manager, accusing them of milking Medicaid of millions, largely for “one-to-one therapy ... the children rarely, if ever, received.” As the Sentinel’s Annie Martin reported, the state accused the school’s owner of using Medicaid money to buy cars, go on shopping sprees and take vacations in New York, Las Vegas and Curacao. Attorney General Pam Bondi called the actions “despicable.” It certainly sounds that way. But it also says a lot about the lack of accountability that it could ever get this far. After all, the Florida Department of Education didn’t stop all this. Criminal investigators did. I asked Florida’s Department of Education about the accountability. Officials did not respond. But Jon East, an executive with the state’s Step Up for Students program that administers the state’s voucher/scholarship program, said he was “sickened” by the details at Heaven Academy. East described accountability as “a shared responsibility” between the state and the parents who can “choose to enroll their child and to remove their child from any of these schools.” So the “choice” they had was to stay or go. Accountability indeed.


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Keys Community College seeks name change


Florida GOP leaders appear fractured ahead of session


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Joyner vows to fight judicial term limits


Woodburn to be named executive director of Constitutional Revision Commission


Rubio, Nelson united in keeping Medicare fraud program out of Florida


The sunshine economy: the uncertainty of Obamacare


Florida GOP look to Medicaid vouchers as White House crafts reform


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Florida comes in at No. 24 in magazine’s debut “best states” ranking


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