BRADENTON – Education will be at the forefront of the legislative session, which gets underway today in Tallahassee. From merit-pay for teachers to digital education in the classroom, legislators will seek to make major changes to Florida schools at both the primary and secondary levels. Governor Rick Scott's recent about-face on educational spending, in which he has proposed across-the-board raises for Florida school teachers, is also expected to put him at odds with many members of his own party as the governor seeks to score some legislative victories prior to his 2014 reelection campaign.
While Scott has become increasingly pro-public school spending as of late, Republican legislators do not seem very enthused to join him and instead seem poised to continue down the governor's previously preferred road of reform – merit-based pay. Florida reestablished teacher evaluations as part of its 2011 teacher-merit-pay law. The controversial new process has been complicated and the governor, as well as new Education Commissioner Tony Bennett, have joined some lawmakers in suggesting that it may need to be tweaked. Some of the filed bills would change how data from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is used in teacher evaluations, though FCAT will only be used until 2014, when the new common core standards are phased in.
Graduation requirements are another area where some lawmakers would like to see improvement to new polices. In 2010, the state implemented tougher graduation requirements for high-school students, including must-pass tests and must-take classes. This year, they are considering whether they should expand ways in which those requirements can be met. Proposed changes could create some exemptions for end-of-course tests or could allow students to earn math and science credits through technical courses as an alternative to traditional classes.
Lawmakers will again consider legislation modeled on California's "parent trigger law," which would give parents input on the fate of failing schools. The controversial proposal died in a 20-20 tie on the Senate floor last year, with opponents arguing that it was really a way to give private, for-profit charter school companies a chance to take over such schools. This year's debate is expected to be equally divisive.
Online education is expected to move into the forefront this year, as powerful private-sector companies lobby to land more of the state's education budget. Bennett, who previously served as elected state superintendent of public schools in Indiana, championed such policies there, unsuccessfully attempting to implement a policy that required all students to take at least one online class before graduating.
Some bills propose changes to the state's Bright Futures scholarship program requirements, which have been made more difficult in recent years because of increased costs as more students met the initial eligibility requirements, while lawmakers failed to implement the step ups in criteria which were initially intended.
On the college level, legislators will again debate across-the-board tuition increases, which have been sought by colleges, but opposed by the governor. Other bills propose changing how individual universities charge tuition. One would lower tuition costs for students in high-demand fields. Another would get rid of the nearly uniform tuition fees of state schools, allowing large public research universities like the University of Florida to charge more than the state's smaller schools.
Governor Scott has also said he wants lawmakers to create a policy that would create "guaranteed costs" by freezing university tuition and fees at state schools for students who graduate with a 4-year degree on time.
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