MIAMI — Sweeping changes the Florida Legislature has made to education in recent years are likely to come to the forefront again during the upcoming session as lawmakers grapple with their implementation.
Contentious debate over Florida's adoption of the Common Core standards, a set of uniform benchmarks in language arts and math, appears to have simmered with the Board of Education's recent passage of several changes following public hearings and input from thousands of parents, teachers and education leaders around the state.
The Legislature could still make additional adjustments to the newly renamed Florida Standards, but any changes are expected to be minor. The next topic lawmakers are likely to focus on in the new session is how to best hold students, teachers and schools accountable. The state is required to implement a new test tied to the standards in the next school year, but many say that is too quick a timeline, especially given that the test has not been selected.
Education Commissioner Pam Stewart is expected to recommend a vendor for the test by the end of March. The new test would replace the current Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.
"That is an aggressive timetable," Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, chair of the Senate Education Committee. "Our concern is that may be too aggressive. (It) doesn't allow any wiggle room for implementation."
The Florida Education Association, the statewide teacher's union, along with the Florida PTA, are asking the state to hit the pause button and wait until the exam has been sufficiently tested and schools prepared.
"If we go on the course that is already laid out, we can look at New York as an example of what our future will be, and everything crashes," said Andy Ford, president of the union.
The rollout of the Common Core standards has been widely criticized in New York for being rushed and uneven. Around the country, and particularly in Florida, the standards have been attacked as being part of a "federal intrusion" into state government and a strategy to force children to take more high-stakes testing.
The standards were adopted by Florida in 2010 and have been approved by more than 40 other states, and have a major supporter in former Gov. Jeb Bush. They were developed by a bipartisan coalition of state leaders with the input of teachers and others with education expertise. They outline what a student should know in order to be prepared for college and the workforce.
"From what I've seen, these standards look very rigorous," said Marlene O'Toole, R- Lady Lake and chairwoman of the House Education Committee. "Florida is pretty much moving up the ladder."
How to best evaluate the performance of individual schools is also likely to come to the forefront. There is a growing consensus that Florida's A-to-F school grading system put in place by Bush has become too complicated, awarding bonuses and delivering penalties in ways that make it difficult for parents to understand.
Stewart introduced a plan at the Board of Education's February meeting that eliminates SAT scores and certain graduation rates from the complex formula used to evaluate high schools.
It would also remove items that automatically cause a school's grade to drop.
Legg said legislators will likely take Stewart's recommendations as a base from which to start debate.
"We felt that was a good template to start with," Legg said.
"It's complex. It's over convoluted," he said of the current grading system.
Other bills garnering attention include House Speaker Will Weatherford's proposal to expand the Tax Credit Scholarship Program to include sales tax payments. The program awards tax credits to businesses for donating to organizations that provide vouchers for low-income students to attend private schools or a public school outside their district.
The bill would also expand who is eligible for a voucher by raising the poverty-level qualifications.
Another proposed bill would establish a new standard agreement for school districts and charter school governing boards to follow when entering a contract. Districts say it would take away a school board's ability to negotiate with and even reject charter school applications that do not meet their standards.
Florida PTA legislation chair Mindy Gould said her organization is concerned the tax credit program's expansion and the proposed charter school bill will ultimately hurt public schools.
"Year after year we've seen chiseling away at our public schools," Gould said. "What we're seeing with these bills being filed this legislation session is chunks being broken away from our public school system."
Weatherford defended the push to expand the use of private-school vouchers, saying there remains a pent-up demand from parents who want the help.
"The story always comes down to a fight over money and over the unions and the traditional public school advocates versus the people who are fighting for reform," Weatherford said. "In the middle there are kids and parents who are looking for a new school to go to, who are stuck in a failing school....There's a huge demand for it, why we would not build in a capacity to allow those parents and kids to have choice?"
State lawmakers will also consider bills that could allow students without legal status to pay in-state tuition; require the Florida College System to establish a collegiate high school program for each district's top students; have districts and the state adopt a digital classrooms plan to improve access to and learning about technology.
Staff writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.