Landmark education bill on path for passage this legislative session

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Sen. Jeff Brandes

A bill that would allow teachers and students to focus on mastery of grade-level skills rather than grades unanimously cleared the Senate Education Committee Tuesday.

Filed by Sen. Jeff Brandes (R- St. Petersburg), SB 226 would expand an existing “competency-based” pilot program to any school district that wants to participate. The program allows students to earn credits based on mastery of content and skills regardless of how much time they spend in the classroom.

A similar bill already has cleared one subcommittee in the House chamber.

Pinellas, Palm Beach and Seminole County school districts, as well as the University of Florida’s P.K. Yonge Development Research School, have been participating in competency-based learning since 2016, when the Florida Legislature permitted them to apply to the Florida Department of Education for waivers from state testing regulations.

Testifying Tuesday in support of the bill, P.K. Yonge director Lynda Hayes spoke about the school’s success, stressing that removing time requirements is a necessary step for schools in preparing students for graduation.

“If we are to really personalize and customize for our students, we need flexibility of time during the school day,” Hayes said. “Some students need more time in some classes and less time in others.”

Hayes pointed to P.K. Yonge’s more than 98 percent graduation rate and the fact that 96 percent of its students pursue postsecondary opportunities as proof of the program’s success.

The bill would allow participating schools to develop an alternative grading system in grades 6 through 12 as long as they continue to utilize a 4-point scale to determine grade point averages for college and scholarship applications.

Brandes filed a similar bill during the 2018 legislative session, which failed to get a hearing in the Senate Education Committee.

Committee chair Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah), an ardent supporter of educational choice, praised Brandes for re-introducing the bill this year.

“Thank you for helping bring us out of this agrarian calendar we seem to be stuck in,” Diaz said.

The bill received support at the committee hearing from both the left-leaning League of Women Voters and right-leaning Americans For Prosperity.

“Anytime you have the League of Women Voters and Americans For Prosperity on the same side of a bill, it may be a sign of the apocalypse,” Brandes said.

There will be at least one more committee stop for the bill before it is heard on the Senate floor. With full legislative approval, the expansion would go into effect for the 2019-20 school year.