Florida Senate takes aim at 20-minute recess rule, high-stakes exams

Key pieces of the Republican education agenda in Florida would be wiped out under Senate bills that would end the rule that students pass two exams to earn high school diplomas, again allow teachers to sign multi-year contracts and, to the consternation of “recess moms,” cut the mandate that elementary schools offer 20 minutes of daily recess.

The package of three bills, which aim to deregulate Florida’s public schools, got a first favorable vote from the Senate’s education committee Wednesday. They were prompted by legislation (HB 1) passed in the spring that made all school children eligible for private school vouchers and also required the state to consider ways to reduce the bureaucracy imposed on public schools.

Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, the committee’s chair, said the bills would allow school districts to make decisions that worked best for their communities, without state mandates. “That is the crux of a lot of what we’re doing,” he said.

The legislation — except for the provision that would delete the state’s recess rule — earned lots of praise from school board members, superintendents and teachers who spoke at the meeting in Tallahassee.

“Thank you, thank you,” said Brent Jones, an elementary school principal in Walton County in the Panhandle. “This is amazing.”

The bills do not yet have House companions, so two months before the full Legislature meets for the 2024 session it is not clear if the Republican-dominated House or Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican candidate for president, will want to follow the Senate’s lead and unwind what have been hallmarks of their party’s decades-old education plan.

The bills would end key parts of Florida’s school accountability program — ones championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush two decades ago — by scrapping the requirement that high school students pass an algebra 1 and language arts exams to earn a diploma.

“We don’t want to cripple those kids when it comes to graduation,” Simon said.

Several superintendents said those requirements put too much emphasis on high-stakes testing and force some teenagers to take remedial classes instead of electives and career-preparation classes that could help them after high school.

Baker County Superintendent Sherrie Raulerson showed photos of three of her students who missed the passing scores on those tests by points and had to keep taking the exams and spending time in test-preparation classes. That included one teenager who had to delay his entry into the military until he finally passed the test in July, two months after his high school’s graduation.

“I’m praying and hoping that this will pass,” she said.

That bill (SB 7004) would also give parents the right to decide if their third graders move to fourth grade, even if they failed the state reading test. Initially, the Senate proposed scrapping the testing requirement — which in 2022 meant nearly 22,000 third graders were not promoted — but then decided to keep it but allow parents to overrule it, if they wished.

Bush’s education foundation said via email that it would discourage the Legislature from scrapping policies that it believes have improved public education in Florida.

“Watering down high school graduation requirements lowers the bar for students, reducing the standard diploma to nothing more than a participation ribbon,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future. Removing the testing requirement “is a disservice to students,” she wrote, as it would mean some would leave high school unprepared.

Ending the requirement that aims to keep students in third grade if they cannot read adequately would also be a mistake, the foundation said, as it has helped Florida students improve their academic performance and national standing.

“Now is not the time for Florida to soften its position on policies that have played key roles in contributing to two decades of educational progress,” added Nathan Nathan Hoffman, the foundation’s senior legislative director, in a statement.

Another bill (SB 7000) would undue pieces of Florida’s fiercely controversial teacher merit-pay law that former Gov. Rick Scott signed in 2011. That would allow teachers to be awarded multi-year contracts, an employment perk that ended for anyone hired after July 1, 2011, and to earn extra money for advanced degrees without the current restrictions.

It would also remove rules that currently make it hard for school districts to reward veteran teachers for sticking with the job.

“There’s so many positive things,” said Mark Motl, a chemistry teacher at a high school in Putnam County. “All three of these deregulation bills have great things.”

Multi-year contracts would help districts recruit and retain teachers, Motl said, and restore job security to the teaching profession.

The plan to cut the recess mandate that now requires that students in kindergarten through fifth grade get 20 consecutive minutes every day met with objections, though.

Angie Gallo, an Orange County School Board, said the bills contain “great” plans but she urged senators to rethink recess.

“I am the original recess mom,” Gallo said, noting she’d joined others who pushed for the state mandate because so many school districts would not act on their own.

The chance to play and take a break from lessons improves academics and student well-being, she said.

“Recess is so important,” said Gallo, adding that she was confident Orange County Public Schools would keep the requirement in place but wasn’t sure all of Florida’s school districts would. “We just implore you to please, please leave the mandate alone.”

Simon said he knows from emails that many parents feel the same way. “My phone is going to blow up,” he said.

His hope, he said, would be that districts maintain 20 minutes of daily recess. “I understand the need for that,” he said.

But the ending the state mandate would mean those “closer to the problem” could decide what was best, Simon added.