Florida Bill Urges Districts To End Grade Retention
Taking one of the first steps by a state legislature to address an issue that has gained increasing attention nationwide, Florida lawmakers have adopted a measure encouraging districts to abolish grade retention in the early grades.
The bill is a scaled-down version of a plan, originally approved by the House, that would have mandated "continuous progress" for pupils through grade 5. That proposal, however, ran into opposition from teachers and Commissioner of Education Betty Castor.
The final version would allow districts to apply for state funds to restructure their primary grades. Although the bill does not authorize new funding, legislators said the state could provide grants through existing programs.
David Voss, a spokesman for Ms. Castor, said it was unlikely the program would "become widespread," because there is little funding available. He noted that the budget approved by the legislature increased school fund4ing by 5.4 percent--a smaller increase than in previous years and barely enough to maintain programs in the fast-growing state.
But Representative Frank Stone, a co-sponsor of the legislation, predicted that the legislature might consider expanding the continuous-progress program in the future.
"This gets us started," he said. "We'll give it a try. If we do that, it has the potential of becoming one of the best programs there is."
The bill passed by the legislature this month also includes provisions creating pilot school-based child-care programs and making it easier to recruit teachers from other states.
'Taking Tallahassee's Grip Out'
By adopting the grade-retention bill, Florida lawmakers joined a growing list of policymakers questioning a practice researchers have said fails to improve student learning and may contribute to the dropout rate.
In recent weeks, several large urban districts and the Massachusetts commissioner of education have8moved to overhaul their grade-retention policies. (See Education Week, May 16, 1990.)
The original House bill would have encouraged districts, for two years, to develop plans to maintain continuous progress for students in grades K-5. Such plans could have included eliminating or combining grade levels, as well as abolishing grade retention, Representative Stone said. By the 1992-93 school year, districts would have been required to have such plans to be eligible for state funds under the Primary Education Program.
The proposal was aimed, Mr. Stone said, at "taking the grip of Tallahassee out of the classroom."
"The biggest goal of mine," he said, "is giving the classroom back to the teachers, and allowing them to use their knowledge and use innovative ways to teach kids."
Noting that Florida schools retain about 11 percent of pupils in kindergarten, Mr. Stone asked: "How do you flunk kindergarten?"
But critics of the plan contended that it would be a costly move that could harm students by moving them along too quickly.
"This is a very fundamental change in our education system," said Representative Tom Banjanin. "The input I'm getting from teachers is that this is a bad thing to do."
Critics also pointed out that the plan would have required districts to provide after-school and summer help for students who were falling behind, but would not have provided funds for such remedial instruction.
"We think it's okay if districts want to experiment with continuous progress," said Mr. Voss. "We went into the session with the philosophical approach of no new mandates without adequate funding."
Although the House passed Mr. Stone's bill by a 66-to-42 vote, the Senate voted unanimously to amend it to make it voluntary. The House then voted 68 to 43 to accept the Senate change, thus clearing the bill.
In addition to the grade-retention provision, the legislation also authorizes at least two pilot school-based child-care programs along the lines proposed by the Yale University psychologist Edward F. Zigler.
Although the measure does not provide additional funding for the programs, lawmakers said Ms. Castor can allocate a portion of discretionary funds for the pilots.
The bill also makes it easier for school districts, which are facing teacher shortages due to rapidly growing enrollments, to hire teachers from out of state.
Under the current system, all new teachers in the state must go through beginning-teacher training and pass a test. The legislation would allow teachers with at least five years' experience to present their records and recommendations from past and prospective superintendents to earn a teaching certificate.
"For a state like Florida that is in great need of teachers, we make it difficult to be certified," said Molly Reed, a lobbyist for the Florida Teaching Profession, an affiliate of the National Education Association.
"I know of several people who were waiting to be certified who said, 'The heck with you,"' she said. "That's something we can't afford.''
Ms. Reed and Mr. Voss expressed disappointment over the budget for the next fiscal year, which would provide the slowest growth in education spending in years.
"It's a maintenance budget, one that will get us by," said Mr. Voss.
Ms. Reed also noted that the actual increase may be smaller than 5.4 percent, since the budget provides a portion of state funds only to districts that increase local property taxes by 30 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation. The legislature rejected a plan to require local jurisdictions to raise property taxes, she added.
"The school boards have to take the flak," the union lobbyist said.
But Mr. Voss noted that, despite the relatively small increase, the budget provides more funding for education than did the one proposed by Gov. Bob Martinez. That budget, which would not have enabled school spending to keep up with inflation and enrollment growth, had sparked protests and an advertising campaign by the state's two teachers' unions.
Ms. Castor's spokesman also noted that the legislature agreed to create a fund for school construction--fi8nanced by an increase in the tax on utilities--that would provide "millions of dollars" over the next 10 years. While the fund would benefit public schools, he said, it would be a particular boon to community colleges and universities, which have no other source of construction funding.
Testing, Sex Education
In other action in its two-month session, the legislature:
Approved Ms. Castor's plan to revamp the state's testing program. Under the plan, the state would replace the existing minimum-competency tests, administered in grades 3, 5, 8, and 10, with new norm-referenced achievement and writing tests in grades 4, 7, and 10. The new tests would focus more on measuring higher-order and problem-solving skills.
Adopted a controversial plan to require the teaching of sex education in grades K-12, after rejecting a provision that would have authorized districts to establish school-based health clinics.
Rejected a proposed "children's bill of rights," which would have placed before the state's voters a constitutional amendment guaranteeing that the legislature provide for the needs of all children to age 18.