After all the discussion and number-crunching around funding cuts and teacher salary structures that took place immediately following the adoption of the state education budget in Tallahassee last week, educational leaders now have more time to think about some of the policy-related initiatives that came out of the 2017-18 legislative session.
Here’s a roundup of a few of those issues, and how they could impact schools in St. Johns County:
Resisting pressure by some lawmakers to reduce student assessment testing, a compromise of sorts was reached at least in this legislative session to shift testing to the final weeks of the school year, especially in grades 3-6. The reforms also include scaling back some of the computerized testing that has become popular and reverting to traditional pencil-and-paper exams.
In addition, a provision was included to ensure teachers and parents receive timelier results of student performance.
“This is definitely a lesser version (of reforms) than what we had hoped for,” said Beth Sweeny, coordinator of governmental relations for the St. Johns County School District, “but I think it’s encouraging that they are taking steps toward reducing testing.”
Sweeny cited the Algebra 2 end-of-course assessment as just one example of testing relief.
Michelle Dillon, president of the St. Johns Education Association, agreed.
“Any dialing back of standardized testing is good,” Dillon said. “We understand the need for testing, but from a teacher’s point of view it is just one data point by which to measure achievement and progress.”
Some statewide officials are still pushing for potential replacement of Florida Standards Assessments testing, but that did not make it to the legislative floor this year.
Elementary students at all public schools in Florida will have a mandatory unstructured free play period of 20 minutes added to their school day. That’s in addition to the 30 minutes of physical education already required by state law.
St. County School District board member Patrick Canan said he was all in favor of the measure.
“I believe children should be active, that school officials should promote activity and exercise and that [kids] do deserve a break in the day,” Canan said.
While Sweeny says she was not against the policy, she was a bit apprehensive of how it would be implemented.
“There’s no minutes added into the day, so something will have to change in how we structure the school day,” Sweeny said.
Currently, elementary principals in St. Johns County schools have discretion about how many blocks, if any, of recess they provide students.
The 650 charter schools that serve more than 250,000 students are exempt from the recess requirement.
What was adopted by the Florida Legislature on the issue of charter schools reads as an incentive for extension of those independent facilities.
The “Schools of Hope” initiative provides a $140 million pot to help under-performing public schools potentially boost their effectiveness by transitioning to new, privately managed charters.
While St. Johns County currently does not operate any charter schools, Sweeny is worried that with taxpayer funds being diverted to the new schools — be they anywhere in the state — “that will certainly take dollars away from our capital budget.”
For a district under rapid growth — including two new schools under construction in the Nocatee and Aberdeen areas — that, Sweeny said, is concerning.
Colleges and universities
William Abare, president of Flagler College who follows legislative issues closely, said he believed higher education institutions, on the whole, “fared very well” in the 2017-18 state education bill.
He pointed to increased support for several new or existing grant programs that provide financial aid to higher education students, including an increase to the EASE (formerly called the Florida Resident Access Grant) program; the Bright Futures grant; and the Florida Student Assistance Grant.