Politics & Government

How much time should students spend learning in class? Legislature looks for answer

Lawmakers now in charge of Florida’s preK-12 education budget say they want to maximize classroom learning time and plan to overhaul state spending accordingly in 2017 to make that happen.
Lawmakers now in charge of Florida’s preK-12 education budget say they want to maximize classroom learning time and plan to overhaul state spending accordingly in 2017 to make that happen. mhalper@miamiherald.com

How much classroom time Florida students spend actually learning will be a major focus for key state lawmakers in charge of doling out more than $23 billion for pre-K-12 education next year, and some of those overhauls could be further reductions to mandatory testing as well as tweaks to the school-year calendar.

The specifics are yet to be proposed and debated, but Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. David Simmons, the new chairmen of the pre-K-12 budget committees in their respective chambers, are both approaching their new responsibility with broad ambitions. They also share a unified goal to direct more dollars and resources to classrooms, even if it means upending the status quo.

“We’re going to look at and review and have oversight on every dollar in that budget. I think it’s our responsibility to ask the questions,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican in his third term who has had — and will continue to have — major influence in advancing school choice policies. “We want to take a deep dive and make sure that we’re getting every penny that we can to that classroom across the board, whether it’s a traditional public school, a magnet, a charter.”

Diaz and Simmons this week suggested that revisions to the school-year calendar could be on the table in 2017, such as potentially extending the school day for students in failing schools and adjusting when standardized tests are administered during the year.

Simmons, in particular, wants to re-evaluate how much time students spend on those routine exams. Even though the Legislature made changes only a couple of years ago to reduce testing, Simmons said there’s a need to go further.

“I don’t think we’ve done enough,” Simmons, a veteran Republican lawmaker from the Orlando suburb of Altamonte Springs, told reporters in Tallahassee. “The reports coming back to us are that there is still too much testing, that we can be more efficient and that we can do a better job on that.”

“We’re going to look for ways to make sure that we cannot spend time testing when we should be teaching,” he added. “When you’re teaching, you’re learning. When you’re testing and you’re doing it too much, all you’re doing is duplicating the amount of information you could get from a much more efficient methodology — which is fewer tests with greater credibility.”

During last spring’s legislative session, lawmakers discussed using nationally recognized exams like the SAT or ACT as potential alternatives to Florida’s primary standardized test, the Florida Standards Assessment. Simmons said that idea could be in the conversation again next year.

“Nothing is going to be sacrosanct that we can’t address,” he said. “The idea is that we’re doing a full analysis of this. There’s a lot of waste that exists, I’ve been told, as a result of this testing, and that affects children’s ability to learn.”

Diaz agreed that testing is an area he’d like to explore in the House, too. He said one way to improve the state’s testing regimen is “to really have an honest conversation of what the school year looks like — when school starts, when it should end and when testing begins.”

Diaz, a former school administrator who now is an executive at Doral College, said he’d prefer pushing all standardized tests to the end of the school year so they don’t interrupt lessons. But, he acknowledged, the ability to do that depends on whether test vendors could turn around results in time for principals to make decisions over the summer on whether students advance to the next grade.

With new House rules requiring individual bills for lawmaker-sponsored spending projects, Diaz said the scrutiny will be even higher on those dollars.

“There is no project that’s safe,” he said. “It may very well stay in there, but I think every item has to be put to the test.”

Lawmakers deciding the state’s education budget next year will be at a slight advantage in terms of focusing their efforts. Previously, single education appropriations committees in both the House and Senate decided all spending from pre-K all the way through the state’s public universities. Under new committee structures in 2017, two separate committees in each chamber will determine pre-K-12 spending and higher education spending.

Diaz said that set-up “will allow us a little more flexibility and time” to truly vet projects and routine spending.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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