The 2013 Legislative session officially opens today in Tallahassee. Lawmakers will meet for 60 days and with no election or redistricting, fewer high-profile issues and a small budget surplus, education could be a headline issue this year.
Here’s five things to watch as lawmakers return.
Budget: Teacher raises?
State analysts project Florida will have a small budget surplus this year. Gov. Rick Scott would like to give teachers an across-the-board $2,500 raise. Lawmakers like the idea of paying teachers more, but don’t like the idea of a standard raise after passing a law in 2011 requiring school district pay teachers based on student performance.
But lawmakers must also look down the road to new education requirements taking effect in the fall of 2014 and fall of 2015. In 2014 all Florida schools are scheduled to move to new education standards and an accompanying online test.
The following year lawmakers have required schools to deliver half of their lessons digitally, using iPads, Kindles or other devices. Supporters say digital curriculum and textbooks are more interactive and can be updated more easily. Students use high-tech devices everyday, and schools say students are comfortable using them for school as well.
Schools that have gone digital say attendance and discipline have improved and students are more engaged.
But the technology comes at a cost. The Florida Department of Education requested $441.8 million to upgrade school Internet capacity and purchase new technology. Scott’s budget — which would use $480 million for raises — sets aside just $100 million for technology.
New standards and testing
Florida is one of 44 states and the District of Columbia which has fully adopted new education requirements known as Common Core State Standards.
Common Core standards are intended to teach a deeper knowledge of fewer subjects, asking students not only what they know but to prove how they know it. The standards will also allow better comparison of Florida students to other students in Common Core states and to students in other countries.
But there’s a growing admission from Education Commissioner Tony Bennett and others that Florida and other states may not be ready by the fall of 2014, when every student switches to the Common Core standards. (Bennett also recently said Florida shouldn’t delay the standards and testing.)
That includes a new, online test called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers or PARCC. Many districts say their schools don’t have the bandwidth to handle giving an online test to their students. Sen. John Legg, the Senate education committee chairman, has introduced a bill delaying the new test until schools prove they have the technology ready.
If Florida lawmakers opt for a delay, will they only delay the new test and keep Common Core standards on schedule? Will lawmakers keep the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test? Allow students to use the SAT, ACT or another option until PARCC is ready? Or will Florida create its own test as part of a ‘Plan B?’
Expanding school choice
Florida lawmakers have introduced a handful of bills which would expand the state’s already broad options for public and private school choice.
One bill lawmakers have debated in committee would allow Florida’s best charter schools to expand more easily, including using classroom space no longer used by district schools.
The bill also prohibits charter school employees from serving on the charter school board and prevents closed charter schools from spending more than $10,000 without outside approval.
Another bill would expand the number or online courses available, moving a step closer to allowing students to choose their classes a la carte from a list of state-approved charter courses.
Lawmakers have also introduced a bill which would create education savings accounts, where parents could use state funding to pay the cost of private schools, online classes, tutoring or other options.
Related issues include parent trigger legislation, which allows a majority of parents at a chronically failing school to choose how to reform the school, and how to fund facilities for charter schools.
A 2011 state law requires school districts to use test scores, observations and other methods to evaluate and quantify teacher performance. Beginning next year, the teachers who earn the highest ratings based on the system will be paid more.
But Florida lawmakers and State Board of Education members are concerned that districts and schools earning low grades on the state report card have a relatively high percentage of teachers earning the two highest ratings.
Lawmakers may revisit the evaluation law this year. A handful of bills have been introduced — most by Democrats — which would tweak the evaluation system.
The school shooting in Newtown, Conn. has everyone thinking about ways to make schools safer. The state school board association is asking for more money for security upgrades. One lawmaker has introduced a bill allowing school staff to bring guns on campus.
Keep an eye on what new security measures the Legislature might require, and how much lawmakers set aside to pay for security.