TALLAHASSEE -- When Pam Stewart became state education commissioner in September, lawmakers said they would give her time to untangle the complicated issues facing the education department.
That unspoken grace period came to an end last week as members of the Senate Education Committee grilled Stewart on the future of Florida's public schools.
Lawmakers expressed doubt the education department could tweak the new education standards and roll out a new statewide assessment by the 2014-15 school year, as Stewart has promised.
Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, pointed out companies competing to develop the test might protest the competitive bidding process, delaying an already tight timeline.
"God forbid we do get a protest," Legg said. "What is the timetable to go through that protest, and could we still get the exam in place (on time)?"
Stewart said the education department had done "everything possible" to avoid a bid protest.
The questions didn't end there.
Echoing concerns from parent groups, state Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, asked why the department had opted against field testing the new assessments in select school districts before deploying them statewide. Trial runs, he said, would have given the education department a chance to work out the kinks.
Stewart said field testing was not necessary.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, had separate questions about technology. He feared some school districts would not have the computers and bandwidth required for the tests -- and called on education officials to slow down the rollout.
"What exactly is the rush?" he asked.
Replied Stewart: "We know that we have to have an assessment in 2014-15 that is aligned to what students are being taught."
The next 18 months are critical for the state education department.
Schools across the state are transitioning to new national benchmarks known as the Common Core State Standards.
Florida education officials will likely tweak the standards next month based on public feedback. A hearing on Tallahassee on the proposed changes is scheduled for Tuesday.
At the same time, Florida must choose and deploy new exams to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, and launch a new system for evaluating and compensating teachers based on student achievement data.
"I find it hard to believe the districts are anywhere close to being ready," said Legg.
What's more, policy experts and parent groups have questioned the credibility of Florida's complicated school grading system, and are calling on the education department to simplify the formula.
Stewart said the department plans to develop a revised formula with fewer components. School grades are used to reward high-performing schools. Schools that earn low grades are at risk of staff turnover or closure.
After the meeting, Senate President Don Gaetz said he felt the education department was "a little late" in addressing some of its most pressing issues.
"The Department of Education has had a lot of time on these issues..." said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former schools superintendent in Okaloosa County. "I think there's just sort of a natural feeling on the part of parents, teachers and legislators that it's time to make decisions."
Gaetz said he hoped Stewart and the state Board of Education would lead the charge, rather than state lawmakers.
"It's time to give clear direction and have clear policy on everything from school grades to teacher evaluations to assessments to data security, and the state Board of Education has the responsibility to do that," he said.