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Education bills advancing in House conflict with Senate versions

Two bills on high-profile education issues that could set up conflicts with the Senate unanimously passed a House panel Tuesday.

The House PreK-12 Quality Subcommittee approved legislation aimed at limiting the time spent on testing (HB 773) and safeguarding students’ and teachers’ religious liberties at public schools (HB 303).

But the testing proposal, in particular, could run into resistance among senators who want to go further in curtailing standardized exams, which have sparked backlash and protests among parents.

RELATED: More Florida Legislature coverage

The House version of the assessments bill has run into criticism because, even though it is called the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation, it does not explicitly eliminate any tests.

The measure would require the state’s language arts and math tests to be administered in the last three weeks of a school year, with the exception of the 3rd-grade reading exam.

It also requires that scores for any tests used by local school districts be provided to teachers within a week, instead of the month currently allowed by law. And it calls for the state to conduct a study of whether college-entrance exams are closely aligned with Florida’s high school standards, with an eye on potentially using them as at least a partial replacement for the state’s graduation tests.

“This bill pursues a worthwhile goal, attempting to decrease testing in Florida,” said Beth Overholt, an education activist. “(But) while it does reduce the testing window, it does not in fact decrease the number of tests or the high stakes attached to the tests.”

Supporters argue the measure would likely lead to local tests that can’t meet the bill’s standards being jettisoned, and they emphasize the importance of giving teachers more time to cover state curriculum before students actually sit for exams.

“The idea is not to eliminate the test completely, but to bring some common-sense reforms to where we are now. And clearly the calendar is the biggest issue,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah.

There is a Senate counterpart to Diaz’s bill (SB 926), but a bipartisan group has rallied around a more far-reaching measure (SB 964) that would, among other things, get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics.

In contrast, the version of the religious liberties bill approved by the House subcommittee preserves many of the same protections as the Senate legislation (SB 436), which narrowly passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

A revamped House version of the bill, however, does not include a requirement for school districts to approve a “limited public forum” policy for student speakers.

The House bill earned bipartisan praise in the committee Tuesday.

“My beliefs should not have to be checked at the door,” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “For those who might be scared of what this might do, we did not say that only Christians are able to pray. This gives the opportunity for everyone to practice whatever religion you practice at home … in the school.”

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