FL Legislature 2021: Lawmakers will face trying times over the state of education, with COVID omnipresent

3rd grader reading. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)

Parents lined up before Florida senators Wednesday to support vouchers for children to attend private schools with public dollars. But critics say lawmakers should focus on the nearly 2.8 million kids who attend public schools.

The simmering public-private debate is just one aspect of what will be a unique legislative session in 2021, with the COVID-19 pandemic omnipresent.

Lawmakers will be convening in a month, preparing to face some of the most trying times in decades over the state of education in Florida.

Already, lawmakers are concerned about declining enrollment – with tens of thousands of students unaccounted for in the pandemic – and whether state testing could impact graduation or grade retention if too many kids flunk the exams.

The lower enrollment could also impact how much state money will be sent to public schools – a significant part of the state budget that lawmakers will be building during the two-month session. Gov. Ron DeSantis will be pushing to do more to increase starting teacher salaries.

So far, more than 50,000 COVID cases related to Florida K-12 schools have emerged in 2020-21, and new COVID mutations are spreading.

Families, educators and lawmakers have an unclear path for Florida schools and students, and the upcoming session could redefine aspects of the entire Florida education system.

Here are some of the key education issues during the 2021 session:

Vouchers continue to be controversial

Senate Bill 48 is sponsored by Sen. Manny Diaz, a Republican who represents part of Miami-Dade County. He wants to consolidate five school voucher programs into two — one directed towards lower-income kids and another for students with special needs. The bill would also expand which families can qualify for voucher programs.

The legislation brings the school voucher conversation back into the spotlight.

Catholic school
Credit: Creative Commons

School vouchers use taxpayer funds to let families of different needs to attend private schools, which are not publicly funded. Diaz believes that parents should be empowered to choose an educational environment best suited for their child, according to a written statement on the legislation.

Rev. Rachel Gunter Shapard, a parent of three public school students and a co-founder for Pastors for Florida Children, spoke against the bill during a Wednesday Senate Education Committee meeting.

She said her group opposes the bill because it will put “more focus on the needs of a few children at the expense of the needs of almost three million public school children in our state.”

“Voucher consolidation, as is proposed by SB 48, does not provide any relief to the current underfunding of public education in our state,” she argued.

But other parents are fully in support of vouchers.

Parent Lamisha Stephens, along with her 16-year-old son, Marquavis, said Marquavis was bullied in the 4th and 5th grade due to his sexual identity, but a voucher program allowed him to attend a private school, which helped with his mental health and his school grades.

“Now he is safe, he can be himself, and he’s learning again like he’s supposed to,” Stephens said.

Statewide testing during the pandemic

In a standard school year, state exams are used to gauge academic success in reading, math, and science in various grades. The assessment roster also includes what’s called end-of-course exams, such as Algebra 1, for older students.

When Florida closed PreK-12 schools in mid-March last year, due to COVID-19, the remaining statewide assessments were cancelled.

But they’re back this year.

Testing. Photo by Getty Images

Many students have already completed some standardized statewide exams in the current academic year amid the continuing pandemic.

While other tests continue, some lawmakers argue that the exam results should not negatively impact graduation or grade retention and instead be used to assess where students need extra help.

“It would be unfair to penalize our students on the accountability system as well as hold our teachers responsible for student performance on test assessments during the COVID-19 crises,” Sen. Perry Thurston, a Democrat who represents part of Broward county, said in a written statement.

He is sponsoring SB 886, which would allow the results of the 2020-21 statewide testing to be more diagnostic in nature. That would mean, for example, identifying students who need help, rather than penalizing kids for not performing well during the stresses of the pandemic.

Thurston’s statement continues: “Due to the different modalities of learning (in-person and online) this year’s data should be used as a baseline to form the necessary academic interventions to address the COVID-19 academic slide.”

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association. Credit: FEA Officer portrait.

Andrew Spar, president for the Florida Education Association, also thinks that “at a minimum” the Legislature should pause the “high stakes” exams associated with the assessments for this year and next year.

“This is not the time to focus on high-stakes testing; this is the time to focus on student learning,” Spar said in a conversation with the Phoenix.

Teacher salaries

Last year, Gov. DeSantis pushed for a goal to get salaries for starting teachers in Florida to $47,500, and the Legislature agreed.

But some districts didn’t quite get there, and DeSantis is pushing for more funds to reach that goal in the 2021-22 budget.

DeSantis’ budget priorities includes $50 million to continue increasing public school teacher salaries to $47,500, according to a previous Phoenix report.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In addition, the governor’s budget recommendations increase the amount the state spends per public school student by $233, plus $110 million for mental health programs in the schools.

Spar, of the FEA, says that expanding teacher pay is one of the union’s top priorities this session. A major criticism of DeSantis’s initial teacher pay plan is that it did very little to raise the pay of veteran teachers.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of people being paid a beginning teacher’s pay now,” Spar shared with the Phoenix. “So if you’ve been with a district for 10 years or 15 years or 20 years — or more, in some cases — you’re making the same as someone just coming into the profession.”

Enrollment issues and the state budget

State funding for education comes from Florida’s annual budget. (Federal and local dollars also add to the mix for school districts.)  But COVID-19 makes the budget process more difficult because of the uncertainty of school enrollments.

The Phoenix reported earlier that tens of thousands of students are unaccounted for in enrollment figures this year — they might be newly homeschooled or in private schools, or possibly truant, but we don’t know for sure right now.

The education budget will be built off the estimated number of students enrolled in Florida’s school system. But information isn’t known about thousands of students.

Higher education and free speech on campuses

State Sen. Ray Rodrigues, a Republican who represents part of Lee County, is the sponsor of Senate Bill 264. His bill, along with a companion bill in the House, proposes that institutions of higher education in Florida should annually measure intellectual freedom on campuses to determine if diversity of ideas are encouraged or stifled.

This bill, should it pass, would compel Florida colleges and universities to conduct surveys to measure the “extent to which competing ideas and perspectives are presented.”

The bill comes at a time where many Republicans are pushing back on “conservative censorship” and believe that college campuses are diminishing conservative voices.

Karen Morian, president of the United Faculty of Florida, doesn’t believe the legislation is an accurate portrayal of academia, where competing discourse is encouraged.

“We’re all living in a very hostile climate right now, and academics are leading the way in how to have a civil conversation when we disagree,” Morian said in a conversation with the Phoenix.

The bill could also spell trouble for science fields.

University of Florida
University of Florida campus. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Stephen Mulkey, a professor with the University of Florida, said the bill is “disturbing” and worries that it could affect the conversation around subjects like climate change, which has been politicized in the U.S. despite significant evidence pointing to human contribution playing a significant role.

“It’s inevitable that a subject matter that is taught at the university level will not sit well with some people who are not familiar with some of the background, the history, the industry…Climate change, itself, has been a political target for a long time.” Mulkey said in a conversation with the Phoenix.

“I worry that once again we are going to return to having alternative opinions on whether or not climate change is human caused.”