The Florida Legislature began its annual 60-day session on Jan. 11. This year’s legislative session occurs against a national backdrop in which education and schools have taken a place at center stage.
From debates over school mask mandates to the teaching of critical race theory in schools, the past year has seen an emergent movement of activism among parents and heated political debate around education from the local school board to the federal level. In Florida and nationally, education is poised for policy change and politicization.
Recently, other colleagues and I from the University of Florida’s Education Policy Research Center joined professors of educational leadership and school administrators from across the state in the capital for a day of legislative briefings. While there are several hundred bills that relate to education and schools, I highlight here several key areas to watch as the legislative session progresses.
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First, several bills propose changes to local school boards. One would return Florida to partisan school board elections, as was the case before a 1998 change. Other bills under consideration would either reduce or eliminate the salaries of school board members.
The bills to reduce or eliminate school board member salaries are presented as reducing the financial incentive for serving and are consistent with practice of many school boards across the country. Nationally, over half of school board members in a recent survey reported not receiving compensation for their role. However, opponents have raised concerns that lack of compensation may restrict school board participation among lower-income individuals who may not be able to serve without financial compensation.
In addition to potential changes to school boards, this session includes proposed legislation regarding instructional content and materials in schools. Like many conservative states nationally, Florida is considering legislation outlining how certain topics related to racism and historical discrimination are taught in schools.
These bills are meant to address the perceived teaching of “critical race theory” and build on the governor’s proposed Stop WOKE Act. In their current form, they would prohibit schools from teaching that individuals are inherently racist, sexist or oppressive or that individuals bear responsibility or should be treated differently due to historical actions of others in the groups with which they identify.
There are several bills that aim to increase parental rights and awareness of what is happening in schools. One of these bills would require schools to notify parents when students disclose to school personnel or request certain accommodations around gender identity or sexuality. In another, schools would be required to have a parental representative alongside media specialists review books and other materials used in schools as well as require the school to publicly post school library holdings.
Related to assessing what is taught in schools, bills in this legislative session would codify the governor’s announced plan to move away from annual high-stakes testing and implement more frequent progress monitoring assessments. As currently written, these bills would provide for a transitionary period before using these assessments for high-stakes purposes.
Among other bills are several focusing on student safety. Continuing to build on recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, proposed legislation seeks to further develop school plans for reuniting students and parents in the case of an emergency.
Others would clarify law enforcement’s role in emergency preparedness drills and allow the addition of video cameras in classrooms. Addressing safety outside of the school building, there is a bill to add cameras to school buses in order to address drivers who fail to yield to buses that are loading and unloading.
The relatively strong fiscal position of the state and control of both the Senate and House as well as the governor’s office by a single political party suggest many of these bills will move forward to law. However, proposed legislation will continue to be debated and shaped over the remainder of the session, making now the time for input and influence.
As bills progress through committee, there are opportunities for public comment and for reaching out to your respective senators and representatives to voice your views on these issues of education policy. Such engagement helps ensure that the collective public voice is considered in the proposed changes to the governance and day-to-day practice of our schools and, ultimately, the outcomes for our students.
F. Chris Curran is an associate professor and director of UF’s Education Policy Research Center (www.ufedpolicy.org). This piece is part of regularly recurring column from faculty of the center.
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: F. Chris Curran: Florida lawmakers considering major education changes