By Dr. Rachel Pienta
In another year, Florida might be buzzing over a special session on schools. Concerns related to funding and testing continue to be hot button issues. This year, however, education has taken a back seat to health care and Medicaid expansion. That said, it does not mean that the executive or legislative branches have entirely ignored Florida’s students.
The anti-standardized testing movement momentum in Florida has reached a critical tipping point. While students across the nation are “opting out” of testing, school systems in Florida have been plagued with technical issues that have delayed testing and resulted in innumerable wasted hours for students and staff across the state.
In February, Governor Rick Scott, amid calls for reform and a growing anti-standardized testing movement in Florida, announced that he supported recommendations to decrease the number of required state tests.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported on recent anti-testing moves made by Miami’s superintendent of schools, Alberto Carvalho. “The superintendent of the nation’s fourth largest school district, Alberto Carvalho of Miami-Dade public schools in Florida, just announced what he called ‘the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not in the country.’ Carvalho also said that he was cutting the number of district-developed end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 — including all for elementary school — to “restore teaching time” and “respect the educational environment.” It is worth noting that, among other accolades, Carvalho was recognized nationally as the 2014 Superintendent of the Year.
Florida’s rollback of testing is noteworthy for many reasons. In Florida, education reform efforts have historically outpaced national trends. Between 1976 and 1984, the Florida Legislature initiated more educational reform than the legislative body of any other state. By 1984, Florida had enacted laws in sixteen of the twenty categories recorded in A Nation at Risk. Additional legislation enacted during these years implemented performance-based provisions for certification and evaluation of teachers and principals as well as an individual-level merit pay mandate and a school-level merit pay mandate (Pienta, 2013).*
Since the 1980s, Florida continued to lead the nation in several areas of education reform. In the area of school governance, Florida implemented deregulatory strategies that allowed some schools to become charter schools that, via a waiver process, were able to request exemption from some aspects of state control. In Florida, charter schools, along with the more controversial voucher system, form part of the larger school choice policy framework.
While the state implemented deregulatory strategies with one hand, it increased the emphasis on performance-based formulas for funding with the other hand. Such programs as the 1999 Florida A+ Plan allowed Florida policymakers to link school choice and performance-based accountability within the same plan. Florida’s A+ Plan, in this instance, predated the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Similarly, No Child Left Behind (NLCB) also combined choice and accountability.
2015 legislation (HB 1145 and SB 1552) making its way through both the House and Senate would allow families to send their children to any public school in the state that has room. In a year where few bills are moving, much less passing, the progress of this legislation is notable. Other provisions of the pending legislation would allow students to move to another classroom within the school they already attend.
School choice critic Diane Ravitch notes that, “23 states have similar policies, according to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based policy group. In some cases they are limited to students who are low-income or are attending failing schools (Ravitch, 2015). In Florida, up to this point, this type of choice has been limited to students who opt to attend charter schools or qualify for school choice vouchers. Other states that have enacted measures to the proposal currently making its way through legislative committees in Tallahassee include Colorado, Washington, Louisiana and Georgia. The proposed legislation would expand the choices available to families in Florida far beyond the current limitations of the charter and voucher options.
Objections to the proposed legislation include concerns over transportation logistics and concerns over the intent of county-based funding initiatives such as short term percentage increases to local millage.
*Sections of this article first appeared in the author’s previously published work entitled “Florida”, as part of a chapter in the 2013 edition of Sociology of Education, James Ainsworth, Editor. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.