State Politics

School testing reforms could fail again in Florida Senate

As lawmakers aim to pass significant reforms to Florida’s public school standardized assessments before the end of this week, Florida Senate Democrats say a bill that’s supposed to do that barely accomplishes any major changes and is, instead, a problematic hodge-podge of education policy.

And one key Democrat — whose widely praised, bipartisan testing reform proposal was shelved so that a less comprehensive Republican plan supported by Jeb Bush’s influential education foundation could advance instead — said Wednesday morning: “If I had to vote today, I’d vote against this bill.”

SB 926, from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, is scheduled to be taken up on the Senate floor Wednesday — but amid major, lingering concerns from Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, of Tallahassee, the chamber delayed taking up the bill when it was time.

Flores was speaking with Montford at his desk on the floor, when SB 926 was “temporarily postponed” on the day’s agenda. (Montford had said earlier he planned to meet with Flores and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, about his objections.)

The chamber could likely still take up the bill Wednesday, along with a plethora of amendments filed since Tuesday evening as senators attempt to tack on other education-related policies that had stalled in committee.

A House companion version (HB 773), which had significantly different language, is now dead because it wasn’t taken up on the floor Wednesday morning before the chamber adjourned for the day. Bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said Flores’ bill is now the vehicle for any testing reforms — or other education policy that might be added — but it would still be subject to negotiations between the chambers in the final days.

SB 926 previously stumbled through its first Senate committee, where Flores worked with Montford and Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, to incorporate some of Montford’s ideas into her bill. Her measure, like the House bill, initially did nothing to eliminate or reduce testing and largely only shifted the testing schedule to the end of the year.

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At its last committee stop, SB 926 was turned into a broader education policy bill beyond just testing, and it now includes other concepts, including the Senate-approved language for daily school recess.

In the early afternoon, Flores told the Herald/Times: “We are working with Senators (Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland) and Montford, and the House of course, to work out the issues and we are holding strong on our position for recess.”

Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent who is CEO of the statewide superintendents’ association, said at a Democratic caucus breakfast that he had had a conference call with the association board Wednesday morning. He warned Senate Democrats they’d be hearing from their superintendents about significant concerns they have.

“I’m frustrated at the process and the negative implications of what this bill does,” Montford said, later adding that his biggest issue is with what the bill doesn’t do — that it doesn’t go far enough to scale back excessive testing.

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“Keep in mind, the whole purpose of this was to relieve students of the overburden of exams and let teachers teach,” Montford said.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, a Lake Worth Democrat who is poised to be the Senate minority leader in 2018, empathized with Montford’s discontent.

“I feel like I’ve heard you give that same speech for five years. They do this to you every time,” Clemens said. “What happens is now they’ll throw a few good things back in there and then try to get folks to vote for the bad stuff because of the few good things.”

“This is not a new thing. It’s a pattern they use every year,” Clemens said, adding that Republican leaders want to “make people vote for it because they’d have to vote against good things. It’s a bad way to do education policy to cram all this policy in one bill.”

Lynda Russell, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, didn’t ask senators to vote one way or the other on the bill, but told the Democrats: “All of us — teachers, parents, education stakeholders around this state — started this session with great expectations and high hopes that we were going to have a great testing reform bill like Sen. Montford’s, and at a minimum, I would say it would be a disservice to go home and say that we have passed a testing reform bill that does as little as this one (SB 926).”