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Senator Flores, the Foundation, and a Path to Accountabaloney

The 2017 Florida legislative season began with high hopes amongst education advocates. The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre-K – 12 Education appeared ready to take real actions regarding the problems with high stakes testing, and other accountabaloney, in Florida’s public schools. In their very first meeting, Senator Tom Lee publicly called out Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. blaming them as the main reason the accountability systems was in the current mess; complaining they had “locked this legislature down. You can’t get a bill out of this legislature that isn’t supported by the Foundation for Florida’s Future.” With legislators willing to stand up to the Foundation, we were optimistic that real change might occur this session.

Sadly, given the events of the past few weeks, we fear the Foundation is still fully in charge and, until legislators are willing to stand up to them en masse, we would describe ourselves as “cautiously optimistic,” at best.

On 4/3/2017, the Senate Education Committee raced through 21 bills and 3 Senate Confirmations in less then 120 minutes. For most education advocates, the focus of the meeting was Foundation for Florida’s Future’s SB926, sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore, Anitere Flores. The bill, initially referred to as the “Fewer Better Tests” bill, recently got a makeover and is now being referred to as “A Path to Fewer Better Tests”, probably because the initial bill language did not eliminate any tests or, frankly, make any real improvements.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future’s involvement in SB926 was clear from the beginning. The bill was named “Fewer, Better Tests” after a Foundation slogan. C.E.O. Patricia Levesque interrupted the sponsoring senators and took over their initial press conference, explaining the details the senators could not (read about it here). There was no hiding the Foundation’s association with SB926.

Eliminating unnecessary testing and returning to a more sensible accountability system had been the goal of a bipartisan group of senate education leaders since the first committee week in January. Senator Montford, along with his fellow members on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Pre-K – 12 Education, had spent hours hearing testimony from Education Commissioner, Pam Stewart, and a wide array of district school superintendents, who outlined several possible solutions to the current state testing issues. These ideas were synthesized into a bipartisan bill, SB964, sponsored by Senator Montford and co-sponsored by Education Committee members Lee, Mayfield, and Stewart. SB964 actually had language that would eliminate five state assessments, allow districts to choose the SAT/ACT for state testing, eliminate VAM and allow for paper/pencil testing.

On 3/21/17, both SB926 and SB964 were presented to the Senate Education Committee, in a workshop focused on assessment and accountability legislation. Montford’s SB964 received overwhelming, bipartisan support during public testimony. Flores’ SB926 received scant support beyond the Foundation for Florida’s Future and its lobbyists. Several public speakers, even those aligned with conservative causes, slammed Flores’ bill as “insufficient.”

“It’s not a bipartisan bill,” said Catherine Baer, chairwoman of The Tea Party Network and part of a coalition backing stronger legislation. “It’s been put forward by former Governor Bush’s foundation. The foundation’s educational philosophy has been soundly rejected by parents in the state of Florida and across the United States.”

Public outcry was particularly strong against the so-called “proficiency language” hidden inside Flores’ bill. SB926 contained language requiring the alignment of Level 3 FSA passing scores to “proficient”, a term used to describe an aspirational, above grade level performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessment (read more here and here). Alignment to NAEP has been a major focus of the Foundation for Florida’s Future for years but was rejected by the State Board of Education, who sided 6-1 with Commissioner Stewart’s January 2016 recommendations to keep FSA passing level near expected grade level performance.

The Foundation must have felt their stranglehold on education policy was at risk. In the week following the testing workshop, Senate Leadership reportedly announced that the Senate Education Committee would have NO comprehensive committee testing bill but, rather, Senator Flores’ SB926 would be the basic bill from the committee; requiring the language from Montford’s good SB964 to be added to Flores’ not-so-good bill via the amendment process. By keeping SB926 a member’s bill, Senator Flores (and, therefore, the Foundation for Florida’s Future) would retain control of the bill and be able to control which amendments would be considered “friendly” and added to her bill. Flores’ SB926 was placed on the calendar to be heard by the Senate Education Committee on 3/27/17. Montford’s SB964 was, glaringly, NOT placed on the calendar. In addition, during the week following the workshop, Senator Flores was quietly added as a voting member to the Senate Education meeting (presumably to replace Senator Hukill, who has been unable to fulfill her duties as chair due to health problems). We have found no public announcement regarding adding Senator Flores to the committee just a few days before it was set to vote on her bill.

During the weekend prior to the 3/27 Education Committee meeting, Senators worked overtime to craft amendments from Montford’s good bill. Education advocates turned up the social media heat for Senator Montford’s bill and against Senator Flores’ proficiency language. When the time came to present SB926, concerned about the number of late filed amendments and led by Senator Lee, the Senate Education Committee temporarily postposed the bill.

The bill was reheard yesterday, crammed into an agenda overloaded with bills and short on time. You can read about the meeting here and here. The extra week gave the senators more time to fine tune their amendments but, once again, most of the substantive issues were presented in late-filed amendments. Some amendments were still being posted just minutes before the meeting was scheduled to begin. Of course, the extra week also gave the Foundation for Florida’s Future more time to influence to crafting of substitute amendment language (you can read how the proficiency language amendment was carefully worded to give the Foundation a “do-over”).

In the end, amendments were added to Flores’ bill that would eliminate the pesky proficiency language, study the ability to use the ACT, SAT or other assessments in lieu of the high school FSA, eliminate 4 state end of course exams, eliminate VAM at the state level and allow for paper and pencil state testing. Perhaps, as amended, it is a “path to fewer, better tests.”

Unfortunately, the companion bill, HB773, currently remains unamended; it contains none of the good of Montford’s bill and all of the bad proficiency language of the unamended Flores bill. It has sailed through 2 committees and is expected to be placed on the House Education Committee calendar soon. After Monday’s meeting, Senator Flores suggested that much of the new language in her bill may be used for horse trading with the House as the bills move forward: “this really puts us into the posture of being able to negotiate with the house on what is going to be the education policy for the next year.” HB773 sponsor, Manny Diaz Jr., is also a Foundation for Florida’s Future loyalist. He appears uninterested in using his “Fewer, Better Tests” bill to eliminate any testing:

“There has been some talk across the hall in the Senate of the elimination of tests. I believe strongly we should not go in there and just start plucking away at tests that have been put in place.”

In addition, Rep Diaz is championing some particularly awful legislation in the House. HB5105 is a “Turnaround Heist” designed to rapidly pave the way towards replacing Florida’s public schools with national chain, charter school networks. Similar language has yet to be heard in the Senate. You should read about it here and here, it is bad. It is quite possible that Monday’s amendment process was merely an exercise to allow House education reformers to “horse trade”, allowing a few testing reforms to pass in exchange for Manny Diaz’ “heist” language, furthering the destruction of our public schools.

Public school advocates may have been encouraged by the amended SB926 but we encourage you to remain vigilant. When the Foundation for Florida’s Future is involved, and they are deeply involved, the result is, more often then not, accountabaloney… or worse.

2 Comments

  1. Ben klitzkie

    Great piece Sue!

    1. Sue Kingery Woltanski

      Thank you.

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