May 4, 2006

Florida ed news: Vouchers, high-school majors, school-year schedules, trips to Cuba

It's the second-to-last day of the regular Florida legislative session, so this is when a lot of business gets done, as well as other political flux (i.e., Bush's defense against Senator Mandy Dawson's claims of political arm-twisting on the voucher votes). Too much to really cover comprehensively, so I'll start with a list of bullet items and then discuss relatively briefly:

  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would shift the failing-schools voucher program to the corporate tax-credit voucher (SB 2234).
  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would put all the non-voucher funds from the corporate income tax into a trust fund that could not be spent on education (SB 2406).
  • Passage in the senate of a bill that would create some minimal accountability for private voucher schools—fingerprinting and background checks for teachers and staff (SB 256).
  • Passage in both houses Wednesday of a bill that would expand and make permanent a virtual-school voucher program for homeschooled students (SB 1282).
  • Passage in both houses of a bill to create "majors" in high school and more career counseling in middle school than currently exists (HB 7087). (This is the A+ Plus Plan.)
  • Attached to that bill is a provision that Florida public schools's academic years not start until the middle of August.
  • Passage in both houses of a bill that would criminalize any public or private school educator who uses public or grant or private funds to take students on a trip to any country labeled a terrorist by the State Department. The sponsor made clear this was to prevent trips to Cuba (SB 2434).

More on the jump.


Vouchers bills

Three of the voucher bills passed today are attempted statutory fixes to the flaws in the failing-schools voucher pointed out by the Florida Supreme Court in January. One attempted fix is to shift the failing-schools voucher to an existing program that lets corporations shift dollars on a one-for-one basis from their corporate income-tax burden to private-school scholarships. A second bill declares that the corporate income taxes are either for the tax-credit voucher program or for non-educational expenses. This is an attempt to get around the issue the Supreme Court raised that the voucher structure drew funds away from general appropriations (i.e., funds that could be used for public schools).

The third bill provides for some minimal accountability for the disabled-student and corporate tax-credit voucher programs in terms of students safety (i.e., requiring fingerprints and background checks of private voucher school employees) and fraud prevention. It says a great deal that these programs have operated for most of this governor's years in office without any of these provisions and that this bill does not apply to the virtual-school voucher program. It also says something very important that for programs involving thousands of children and hundreds of schools, the bill only allows the Department of Education to conduct unannounced spot-checks of the schools for these minimal provisions three times in a year for the disabled-student voucher program and seven times in a year for the corporate tax-credit voucher program. No, I didn't mean three or seven checks per school. That's three or seven checks for the whole program (respectively) for the year.

The last voucher bill I mentioned, though it passed yesterday, expands and enshrines the virtual-school voucher program that started essentially as a sole-source giveaway to K12, the virtual-school company associated with former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett. (I guess going through a bidding process wasn't something he wanted to gamble on.) One scandal that first year (2003-04, I think) was that the bill authorized only first-grade and up students, but the Department of Education allowed K12 to enroll kindergartners. Right now K12's virtual school in Florida still operates alongside one other. The bill would authorize three, with the two currently operating guaranteed the work for another year.

One signal difference between the virtual-school voucher program and the others is that the virtual-school program essentially operates as a contract relationship between three operations and the state Department of Education, a contract that can be ended at any time for failure to perform duties. Students have to participate in the statewide assessment program, and the virtual-school companies get ranked in the same way as local public schools and charter schools. For those reasons, I think the virtual-school voucher program, or more properly the virtual-school contracts, are not vulnerable to the voucher-program flaws pointed out in Bush v. Holmes.

But the same cannot be said of the other three voucher programs. Even if the corporate tax-credit voucher program is seen as not competing with the public schools (something that I think courts will not accept, even with SB 2406), there is still the matter of uniformity in the Florida state constitution. As I have noted elsewhere, the court did not define uniformity but left the clear impression that whatever it required, the failing-schools voucher program didn't cut it. I don't think having fingerprinting will do it, either, especially when this governor's chosen emphasis has been on accountability. When two other choice programs (charter schools and the virtual-school contracts) require participation in the state's accountability framework but vouchers don't, the courts will probably not look kindly on this continuing double standard.

HB7087

This bill is the omnibus school-reform package this year (apart from vouchers), and it's every bit the legislative sausage you'd expect from any governor's last year, despite the catchy "A+-Plus Plan" title. I'll see if I can decompose it a bit.

Update (3:30 Friday): A contact in Tallahassee has let me know that I was looking at one of the older versions of the bill. I'll correct this in detail later but will remove some things I know are not in...

Reading office

The bill puts the governor's Just Read, Florida! initiative into state law as a unit in the state education department with a budget line.

Career ladder chopped off

The bill eliminates the previous career-ladder pilot (with the acronym BEST). This was poorly funded and essentially defunct as it was.

Opening date of school pushed back

The bill prevents any school district from starting the 2007 year before the middle of August. This is a moderate change, since advocates of a later year-opening really wanted late-August at the earliest.

Mandated progress monitoring for many schools, especially at the level for which there is minimal research

(3:30 Fri: I'm not sure if this is still in there... but I need to make sure I have the proper version before making changes.)

The annual school-improvement plan required of all schools has been changed, with schools labeled C or worse having the following among the new requirements (in lines 639-648, on pp. 24-25 of the engrossed form of the bill):

  • Mini-assessments of targeted Sunshine State Standards benchmarks that provide ongoing progress monitoring of students and generate data to redesign instruction.
  • A student performance monitoring plan and clearly assigned school personnel monitoring responsibilities.

Let me disclose my postdoctoral experience with Doug and Lynn Fuchs of Vanderbilt University, who are well-known researchers in the area of curriculum-based measurement (CBM), also known as progress monitoring. Both are associated with the National Center on Student Progress Monitoring. I've seen the stuff up close and I've seen it used well. Other sections of this bill require that students in academic troubles have progress monitoring at some level (which could be a special-ed individualized education plan, or IEP, a school-wide progress-monitoring plan, or an individual progress-monitoring plan). That seems fine to me, at least in theory.

On the other hand, CBM/progress monitoring has its most solid research base at the elementary level, and while I haven't had a professional reason to keep up with the literature in about a decade, I suspect most of it has stayed at the elementary level, with some at the middle-school level. Yet, if you look at the distribution of letter grade labels applied to Florida schools, you'll get a sense of the oddness of this requirement: Of the 1650 elementary schools receiving letter grades in 2005, 380 (23%) had C or lower. Of 529 middle schools, 193 (36%) had C or lower. And of 391 high schools, 249 (or 63%) had Cs or lower. Because of the nature of the grading system, high schools are predominantly in the middle of the scale with the mode being C (while the mode for both middle and elementary schools in 2005 was an A). If you include the combined-level schools (i.e., K-8, 7-12, K-12, etc.), then of all 927 schools receiving a letter grade below a B, 547 of them include secondary students and 442 have no elementary students at all.

In other words, the requirement based on research at the elementary level will be applied disproportionately at a level (high school) for which I'm reasonably sure there is scant evidence either of success or of how to use it. That doesn't meant that progress monitoring can't work out at the high school level. And I may be wrong about the research. But it's reasonable to predict considerable growing pains and a potential backlash against this. If there are serious implementation problems that sour the state on progress monitoring, then this bill would have been an enormous disservice to the children of Florida.

Getting the GEDs out of the longitudinal graduation rate

The bill requires that the state department of education discontinue crediting GEDs as diplomas in the longitudinal graduation rate.

Task force on paperwork reduction

The bill requires that the DOE convene a task force to help reduce the bureaucratic form-filling time that is a burden on the district. My only prediction is that this task force will create a paperwork burden... hopefully, only a minor one that will result in some real improvements. Despite its being Southern, Florida is highly bureaucratic; the 17-story Turlington Building is the second-highest thing in Tallahassee (just behind the 22-story Capitol complex).

Dropout survey

The bill requires that students dropping out of school at age 16 or above sit down with a counselor who is supposed to tell them why dropping out is wrong and ask them to complete a survey on why they're dropping out. I wonder how many of them sign the existing required declaration that dropping out is stupid (with more flowery language), ...

Middle-school curriculum mandates

The bill mandates that students promoted from 8th grade have earned three years' worth of credits each in English, math, science, and social studies, and one half-year course in career exploration in 7th or 8th grade. There is a requirement that districts create policies to allow students to recover/forgive failed grades with intensive remediation. My primary concern, though, is with the short time-frame: this is all supposed to start with my son's cohort, in the fall.

High school curriculum changes

The high-school piece of this bill is more complicated. I think it slightly raises the academic coursework required for a standard diploma (4 years each of English and math, 3 for history/social studies, science [2 of which have to be lab-based], and ten in various electives.

It's the composition of the 10 course-years' worth of electives that has gotten much of the press play. Four of those year-long courses (or a combination of year- and half-year-long courses that combine to four years) have to be in a thematic strand approved by the state as a major. A student can also have a second major or a minor of an additional three years in another thematic strand. No big deal, I think: many students spend their high school years in drama, band, orchestra, step, etc., and this structure will accommodate those interests. It fits easy with magnet programs, and I don't think this dramatically changes the structure of schooling.

Where the real question will come is in the provisions for transfer students. Imagine this system in place a few years from now, and there's another hurricane disaster that shifts a few thousand seniors from another state to Florida. They don't have coursework in these strands. There will inevitably be a waiver system for transfers, I suspect.

Career academies

The bill defines career academies as the type of program that 1980s/90s tech-prep advocates would have loved, combining vocational and academic skill building with internships, shadowing, etc. Another section of the bill creates a vocational certification program.

Transferable Electronic IEPs

The bill requires that the state department create an electronic IEP form that then becomes mandatory for local school districts. Ideally, this would make all critical information about students with disabilities easily transferable when students move. Good thing in theory! Given my wife's experience with the online IEP for Hillsborough County here in Tampa (better than paper, but clunky as all heck), I hope they combine this with the paperwork-burden-reducing task force. (Really, what this needs is a usability-design focus from the start.)

Tightening up of repeat FCAT administrations for graduation purposes

Currently in Florida, if a student does not meet the required threshold for graduation on the 10th grade FCATs, they can use retest opportunities. The retesting is without the performance items on the regular 10th grade FCAT, however, a distinction of some note in Florida in terms of standards. The bill tells the FDOE to make the resting "as equally challenging and difficult" as the regular one.

Governor's takeover of problem schools

(3:30 Fri: I'm fairly sure this was taken out by the senate; will confirm later.)

It's not exactly clear what the process is, on first reading (late at night), but the bill provides a method for the Governor to assume control of a school with repeated academic difficulties.

Collective-bargaining agreement collection

The bill requires that the FDOE collect and provide online access to all collective-bargaining agreements in the state's schools.

Union shaming requirement

In the same provision noted above is a requirement that the state also publish the salaries of union officers (teachers elected to union positions, not staff). I'm not sure what this is supposed to do, other than act as an encouragement of unions to elect non-teacher personnel to officer positions so the numbers look low (in terms of union-officer salaries).

Differentiated pay

The bill requires a differentiated pay plan for each district. This is the watered-down merit-pay provision that is very very far from the EComp plan tied to the FCATS that has been floated by the State Board of Education. It's subject to collective bargaining and can include a variety of factors.

Evening the assignment of teachers

The bill includes a statement of intent that collective bargaining can include steps to address inequities in assigning experienced, effective teachers to low-performing schools and a requirement that school districts assign no more than the average proportion of "first-time teachers, temporarily certified teachers, teachers in need of improvement, or out-of-field teachers" in the district to schools with a higher-than-average proportion of poor students or low-performing schools. The intent is wonderful; the language is idiotic. Think about this for a second: in larger districts, roughly half of the schools will have an above-average proportion of poor or minority students. And none of those schools can have a higher-than-average proportion of inexperienced or weak teachers. That means that every school in "nice" neighborhoods has to have a higher-than-average proportion of inexperienced and weak teachers. This will be logistically impossible, I think. I understand the (best possible) intent of this provision, to make wealthier areas share the burden of the weaker teachers in a district. It presumes that a major barrier are teachers unions, but I suspect most unions would have no difficulty with incentives for experienced teachers to work at schools with intense concentrations of poverty. But I just don't know about this requirement...

Banning student travel to Cuba

The bill that would ban using public or private funds for student trips to Cuba (and any other country labeled as terrorist by the U.S.) for any purpose, including in private universities, is an obvious violation of academic freedom. Update (Friday 10:25 pm): Last night, when I first read about, I wrote, "On campuses with collective bargaining agreements protecting academic freedom, this is unenforceable." That's incorrect, I've been told by colleagues; the legal construction of a collective bargaining agreement does not supersede laws imposing restrictions on behavior.

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Posted in Education policy on May 4, 2006 11:30 PM |