Promising school testing reforms bog down in political gamesmanship

Efforts by the state Senate to address too much standardized testing in Florida’s public schools this year are on the rocks after a key proposal was abruptly postponed Monday when one senator objected to what he called an “abomination” of the legislative process.

After forcing the delay, veteran Republican and former Senate President Tom Lee blasted his own party leaders for last-minute political tactics and for “stealing” components of a popular Democratic bill in order to salvage a separate reform proposal from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who is No. 2 in the chamber behind Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“There’s right and there’s wrong, and just because Sen. [Bill] Montford is a member of the minority party — that’s the only reason his legislation isn’t up,” Lee, of Thonotosassa, told reporters. “This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.”

Lee added: “This is just such a flawed process to undergo, and I’m embarrassed by it. As a member of the Senate that’s been here 15 years and believes this process ought to work off of mutual trust and respect for the process, this is an abomination.”

This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa

At the heart of the dispute are two competing reform measures: SB 964 by Montford, D-Tallahassee, which has broad bipartisan and public support, and Flores’ SB 926 — the main advocate of which is Jeb Bush’s influential Foundation for Florida’s Future, which helped write the bill.

Several senators on the Education Committee said Monday they want to consider Montford’s bill because it includes more substantive and comprehensive reforms than Flores’, yet her proposal was the one that Senate leaders chose to take up.

Seeking compromise and to make Flores’ measure more palatable to critics, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, proposed six drastic changes to blend her bill with Montford’s. But his amendments came after Monday’s meeting had already begun — giving the committee members barely an hour to review them before the bill was called up.

Throughout the meeting, Flores and Simmons huddled together in intense discussion, and Flores also worked the room, visiting with other committee members one-on-one to shore up support. At one point, even Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens — who is not a member of the committee — was in the room and involved in the talks. (Braynon did not return a message seeking comment.)

But when it was time for Flores’ bill to be considered, Lee immediately moved to postpone it and demanded a roll-call vote, so that senators would be on the record supporting or opposing the delay. The delay was approved 5-4, with Flores — who wasn’t a member of the committee until this week — casting the deciding vote. (Flores takes the place of chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who has been gone all session and will continue to be absent because she’s recovering from cancer.)

Montford, a former superintendent of Leon County public schools who now works as CEO of the superintendents’ statewide association, could not be reached for comment Monday.

After the meeting, Simmons and Flores downplayed the public divide among the senators.

Flores said she’d been working “very closely” with Montford on the changes to her bill, and she conceded Lee’s point that senators had no time to consider the amendments. “Now we have a little more time to talk about them,” she said.

“We were obviously working diligently and we just ran out of time,” Simmons told the Herald/Times. “There were amendments that we were making even into the committee meeting, and it was just better that it’s done next week when everyone is fully aware of the extent of these amendments.”

“It’s a simple taking of what Sen. Montford has on his bill and what Sen. Flores has on hers and merging the two together,” Simmons said. “Neither is identical to the way they were, but it’s a big step forward for both of them.”

Flores’ bill is dubbed the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill, but it doesn’t actually reduce or eliminate any testing. Its main function would be to shift all assessment tests to the final three weeks of the school year and require a faster turnaround time for teachers and parents to get results.

MORE: “Possible fix for testing turmoil would move assessment exams to end of school year”

By comparison, Montford’s plan has multiple facets to reduce and improve testing — and he had the support of nearly a quarter of the Senate when he formally unveiled it earlier this month.

His bill would get rid of end-of-course exams in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics; would let students use the SAT or ACT in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments; would shift testing to the last four weeks of the school year, and afford districts the discretion of using paper-and-pencil tests instead of requiring computerized exams. It also repeals a controversial formula to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year growth on exams.

“His bill is replete with thoughtful reforms about how to reduce the amount of testing in this state,” said Lee, who is co-sponsoring Montford’s measure. “The piece of legislation that we actually had on the agenda today did not one thing to reduce testing, and to me, it’s just a personal affront to Sen. Montford.”

Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said he also supports Montford’s plan, but he said he wasn’t surprised by Monday’s events. “It wouldn’t be new to me to see legislation proposed by someone on the other side being usurped by the majority. That’s what happens to good Democratic bills,” he said.

We were obviously working diligently and we just ran out of time. … It was just better that it’s done next week when everyone is fully aware of the extent of these amendments.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs

The Senate Education Committee could revisit the testing reforms as early as next week, but it’s unclear if senators will proceed with modifying Flores’ bill or if they’ll take up Montford’s instead.

“That’s the bill this committee wants to vote on — not the bill that was up today,” Lee said, adding that Flores’ bill wouldn’t have had the votes to advance, even with Simmons’ amendments. “Where did those amendments come from? Out of the core substance of Sen. Montford’s one-year-long work product, and that’s just wrong.”

Flores’ bill is due to be fast-tracked to the Senate floor. If approved, it would have only one more committee stop, Rules — making the Senate Education Committee the only “substantive” vetting it would get, Lee said.

The House companion to Montford’s bill is essentially dead for the session. HB 1249 has not gotten a hearing yet, and its first assigned committee — the Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee — had its final meeting of the session on Monday.

Meanwhile, the House companion to Flores’ bill, HB 773 from Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., is scheduled to get its second of three hearings on Tuesday in Diaz’s budget committee.