ST. PETERSBURG — A simplified school grading process, more technology-driven classrooms and more scholarship opportunities are among the biggest changes parents and teachers in Pinellas County will notice from this year’s legislative session, said Steve Swartzle, the school district’s consulting lobbyist with Florida School Services. Yet putting the new policies into practice will come with its own challenges and myriad questions, he said.
The Education Accountability Bill, signed by Gov. Rick Scott earlier this month, gives schools a one-year transition period to implement new tests aligned to the Florida Education Standards before schools and instructors are evaluated under a new grading formula the Florida Department of Education calls “simple, transparent and focused on student success.”
Starting next school year, school grades will be calculated solely by student achievement, such as performance on state tests, graduation rates, learning gains and earned college credits or industry certifications.
No “bonus points,” “automatic adjustments,” or extra performance data will contribute to the grades.
Most changes were folded into a massive bill titled The Education Train, a potpourri of education policies. They include measures to expand the ban on hazing from high schools to middle schools and to require colleges to contract with school districts to create collegiate programs, much like St. Petersburg College’s Collegiate High School, Swartzle said. Students in those programs can earn up to a year of college credits by the time they graduate from high school.
Beginning with incoming ninth-graders, students in exceptional student education programs no longer can earn special diplomas. Instead, parents and school districts have to create a plan to help them graduate with a standard high school diploma or a certificate of completion. Students currently on track to receive a special diploma will be grandfathered in to existing policies.
“I hope we as a district can all do something else and still have the same requirements or help for these students,” school board member Linda Lerner said. “We all have seen special diploma students, and there’s a need for it ... . It will cause some questions.”
Eligibility requirements for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which allows low- and middle-income students to apply for scholarships for private school, were broadened to provide partial scholarships to students from families earning up to 260 percent of the poverty level. A new “personal learning scholarship account” also was created to allow special education, home schooled and private school students to apply for reimbursement for some educational expenses even though they aren’t in the public school system, Swartzle said.
Students at these private schools are not required to take the FCAT, but money was given to the Learning Systems Institute at Florida State University to compare student performance at the participating schools with that of students with the same socioeconomic background in traditional public schools. The hope is the study will provide more accountability for the program, Swartzle said.
“I think a lot of these things are just tit-for-tat; they should have been doing these audits and monitoring at schools from the beginning,” school board member Robin Wikle said. “Overall, I feel like there are a lot more questions than there are answers. I get the importance of saving low-income students from attending struggling schools, and scholarships help save (special education) students from struggling schools, but now we’re saving home schoolers from their parents? It doesn’t make sense. It’s a choice.”
The Instructional Materials Bill keeps the current processes school districts use to adopt books, but now requires them also to purchase materials in a digital format and to adopt policies to hear parent complaints about textbooks. The state also banned the use of biometric data collected through palm, finger and retina scans. The change means Pinellas will be allowed to use its palm scanners, which read students’ palm prints to pay for their lunch, for only one more year, Superintendent Michael Grego said.