Florida Legislature Ponders Education Bills Including STEM Teachers, Coding as a Foreign Language

Lawmakers will wrap up the current legislative session soon, and some of these major reforms could make it into law.

by Scott Travis, Sun Sentinel / March 7, 2016 0

(TNS) — Florida schools may soon have more out-of-county students, more autonomous principals and more teachers without an education background.

But the state Legislature may recess without passing any new requirements on school recess, and it has already shot down proposals to allow guns on campuses.

With just a week to go in this year's session, here are how some of the state's dozens of education bills are faring.

School choice

A bill that would allow parents to send their child to any Florida school in the state, as long as there is room, has passed the state House and is awaiting Senate action.

Each district would decide which schools have enough capacity to handle more students. Parents would provide their own transportation, which critics say favors wealthier families.

Rep Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, disagrees.

"Wealthier parents are already able to pick where they reside, where there's an A-rated school or private school nearby," Diaz said. "This bill allows a common sense way for a child living in a low-socioeconomic area with a low-performing school to leave the school and go to a quality school somewhere else."

The option would be available starting in the 2016-17 school year.

Principal autonomy

Highly effective principals would get more freedom from state bureaucracy and rules, with the goal of turning around low-performing schools.

Principals could pick their teachers, textbooks and resources such as technology.

Broward County has already partially implemented this proposal, using federal dollars to give bonuses to highly rated principals who now lead two low-performing schools, Park Ridge Elementary in Deerfield Beach, and Walker Elementary in Fort Lauderdale.

"We've seen a great deal of success as far as student gains in Broward County," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. "This is about assuring our schools are getting the best and brightest leaders."

The state bill would allocate $910,000 for principal bonuses, training and other costs at eligible schools. Seven districts could participate in the pilot project, including Broward and Palm Beach counties.

STEM teachers

The state may start a pilot program that would allow those whose background is in math and science, but not education, to easily receive teaching licenses.

The proposal is a way to recruit and retain more teachers in science, technology, engineering and math, collectively known as the STEM fields.

The bill applies to those teaching now with a temporary certificate who still need to take 15 hours of required education courses. Those courses would be waived if they have a master's degree or higher, pass a professional competency exam and received highly effective on their most recent evaluations.

"These are teachers who are already performing at a high-level in an area of need," said Rep. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast.

The bill appears to have support in both houses.

Teacher bonuses

The controversial program that allows teachers to receive bonuses of up to $10,000 based partly on how well they scored on their ACT and SAT in high school is still alive. But it's far from certain the program will remain intact.

The House supports the bill, but the Senate has proposed numerous amendments, such as excluding new teachers and allowing other tests to be used, such as ones for graduate school placement.

The bill passed last year allows teachers to receive the bonuses if they scored in the top 20 percent of their college placement test. If they've already been evaluated, they would also have to be rated as highly effective.

The bill is largely opposed by teachers' groups and school districts.

"They're trying to draw a correlation between an 11th grade high school test and someone who is a highly qualified teacher, and there's no research tying those two together," said Vernon Pickup Crawford, lobbyist for Palm Beach County schools.

Guns in schools

The Legislature didn't take any steps this year to expand gun rights in schools and colleges. A proposal to allow certain school employees to carry guns as a way to protect the school was withdrawn in November. Another proposal to allow college students with concealed carry permits to bring their guns to campus also died.

Recess

At least 20 minutes of recess would have been mandatory each day in a bill supported by the House. The idea came about from parents who complained districts had dropped recess for more academic time. But the Senate refused to hear it, so it won't become law this year.

Coding as a foreign language

A bill that would allow students to receive foreign language credit for the skill of computer coding sailed through the Senate last week and has passed several House committees. It's awaiting a final vote.

Comprehensive reform

Many education proposals are being considered in a comprehensive education bill, including:

— Allowing private schools and smaller schools that don't offer all sports required by the Florida High School Athletic Association to still compete in state athletics.

— Allowing parents to more easily transfer their child to a different teacher.

— Adding more stringent requirements to charter schools in the application process as well as more oversight by school districts.

— Requiring the Department of Education to incorporate two hours of youth suicide awareness and prevention training as part of K-12 teacher professional development.

— Creating a "Distinguished Florida College System Program" to recognize high-performing state and community colleges.

©2016 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.