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Tom Jackson Columns

Jackson: Legg seeks solutions, not headlines

ZEPHYRHILLS — Understand this about John Legg, the second-year Republican state senator from Trinity: At some point during any visit with him, he will stray into the tall grass. That, after all, is where the solutions lurk.

“I've been in government long enough,” Legg says, “to know Democrats and Republicans can usually come to an agreement that there's a problem. It's our solutions that are different, and that solution really matters. But that's really hard work. Describing the problem gets you headlines; finding the solution doesn't.”

Legg never has been much of a headline seeker, and that, as he visited with constituents at the Alice Hall Community Center on Thursday morning, seems not to have changed. As chairman of the Senate education committee at this particular moment, however, it seems inevitable the headlines will seek him.

The wildly unpopular Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test is, like the DeLorean, Microsoft's Zune and Piers Morgan, destined for infamous oblivion, although the same cannot — should not — be said of the state's accountability and assessment matrices. “Getting those right,” Legg says, “will be the most important things we (legislators charged with guiding education policy) do this session.”

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Accordingly, Legg knows he could be in for a rocky session. Already, he notes, “I've never been in the paper so much,” adding a rueful laugh. He's been tweaked — wouldn't you just know — for recommending the wrong solution to one of those things everyone agrees is a problem: an overabundance of standardized testing.

Legg, with his legendary devotion to data, theorizes over-testing within a confined period produces assessment fatigue and numbers not worth the crunching. However, his proposal — prohibit other standardized tests (except the national biggies such as the ACT and SAT) two weeks before and after those mandated by the state — was leapt upon with complaints that the problem isn't test clustering; it's the aggregate of standardized tests coupled with their importance.

They also say the Legislature created the problem at the district level by making standardized tests central to teacher evaluations as well as quantifying student progress. Legg contends districts err on the side of overtesting, a condition he's witnessed firsthand as an administrator and intermittent teacher at Dayspring Academy, a K-8 charter school in west Pasco County. Though directing superintendents to dial it back may exceed the Legislature's grasp, establishing blackout periods could achieve the same purpose.

It turns out tall grass is an excellent place for finding alternative methods for skinning cats.

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Legg also is wading chest deep in search of a nuanced way to achieve House Speaker Will Weatherford's determination to extend in-state university tuition to illegal immigrants who are both longtime residents and graduates of Florida high schools.

Though he won't support a blanket extension of higher-education amnesty — that's assuming authority over immigration the Legislature doesn't have, he says — the solution could lie in giving state universities the authority to grant in-state tuition to Florida-resident immigrants who are here illegally, so long as they count them against their pool of out-of-state students. But he's dead-set against a policy that would bump any in-state residents here legally.

Leaving aside the fact of Legg's shrewd political calculation — he never will have to face parents of disappointed applicants from 49 other states — his proposal on an issue that has the remarkable capacity for tugging at heartstrings even as others fix rhetorical bayonets represents the beginnings of a reasonable compromise.

Not that such legislative elegance makes headlines. But that's how Legg likes it, out here where the grass is as high as an elephant's eye.

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