Let’s just start with the bottom line: Florida lawmakers passed a big education bill Monday that is mostly good for kids: It protects recess for elementary students, reduces state tests for high schoolers, and most importantly brings hope to many families stuck in the worst schools in the state. Unfortunately, that same bill, along with the education section of the state budget, moves us backwards on growing strong teachers in our schools.
Assuming Governor Scott doesn’t exercise his veto authority (and he probably won’t on these), you may start seeing an impact on your school as soon as this fall.
First, the bad news
The money that pays for professional development and salaries for teachers and staff is going down by $27.07 per student.
Here in Leon County, that means about a million dollars less for attracting good teachers, helping them grow, and keeping them here. In Broward County, which has more than 270,000 students, it’s about a $7.3 million cut.
It’s worth noting, the overall spending per student is going up (that’s the main message some lawmakers want you to hear), but the part available for salaries and certain types of teacher training is going down.
The other bad bit of bad news is that teacher evaluations are poised to become even less meaningful than they are now, and at the moment they are not very meaningful. Under the current system, nearly 98 percent of all teachers in Florida are considered “effective” or “highly effective.” This would be very reassuring if we had 98 percent of schools receiving As and Bs. But with 54 percent of schools getting a C, D, or F, in 2016, I have a hard time grasping what the state means by “effective.”
The new law essentially says that instead of tying teacher evaluations to student performance in the same way across the whole state, districts can figure out their own ways of doing it. That spells inconsistency.
Also, figuring out how much credit a teacher deserves for her students’ progress is hard. Researchers across the country have basically found only two reliable (though imperfect) ways to do it. Florida had chosen one of those ways back in 2011, but this new law gets rid of it.
If teachers aren’t given meaningful feedback about their performance—if “everyone gets a trophy”—how can we expect to see meaningful progress?
Speaking of trophies, the soon-to-be law also sets up bonuses for teachers: $1,200 for those rated highly effective, and $800 for those rated effective. Considering the fact that many teachers are already underpaid, and that district superintendents have less in the pot to draw from for salaries, the bonuses feel more like a meager attempt at reconciliation.
The Good News
Fortunately, lawmakers got a few things right. The law will make recess for elementary school students a state requirement. I still can’t believe we needed a law to make sure kids have a chance (other than lunch) to break up a six-hour day of sitting in classes, but that’s where we are.
Also, by this time next year, students will likely have fewer tests to take. Specifically, high schoolers will no longer be required to prove their second-year algebra skills at the end of the year, and local school districts may be able to use ACT or SAT tests in place of some state-required tests. Two birds, one stone.
I should emphasize the word, ‘may’ here. The law says the education department has to investigate the possibility of using a national college entrance exam before just doing it, but most education experts are already pretty comfortable with that idea–and the federal government has encouraged it–so there’s a good shot that’s how it’ll play out once the study is complete.
Tests are important, of course, because they give us a way to see which students aren’t getting what they need out of their schools. They also tell us if we’re making any progress toward helping them catch up to where they should be. A nationally respected test like the ACT or SAT can probably do that just as well as our current state tests for high schoolers.
Finally, this new law would bring real hope to a lot of families.
Lawmakers put money into the budget and passed a law to bring proven charter school organizations–those that manage at least three successful charter schools and serve mainly low-income students–to communities where the traditional school has been scoring an F for three years in a row. Just imagine for a second that you’re one of these families (maybe you don’t have to imagine). This persistently crappy school is your only option. Your kids deserve something better. Having these “Schools of Hope,” as they’re called in the law, will give families a chance to turn around the prospects for their kids and forge a brighter future.
Lane Wright is a father of three in Tallahassee, former press secretary for Governor Rick Scott, and current editor for Education Post, a national education nonprofit focused on creating better conversations around improving our schools.