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Florida Senate delays school testing bill amid GOP rift

Republican divisions on standardized testing temporarily scuttled a bill aimed at cutting back on the number of exams students face in public schools, though Senate leaders said they believed a vote Monday would not completely derail action on the issue.

The Senate Education Committee voted narrowly Monday to postpone action on the measure (SB 926), one of several dealing with testing during this year’s legislative session. A bipartisan mutiny was led by Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican who is a vocal opponent of the state’s standardized testing regime and who has increasingly become an irritant to his chamber’s GOP leadership.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Lee said the process for dealing with the testing bill was “an abomination to our own rules” and was meant to trump legislation from Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

“This bill was never filed until Senator Montford’s bill began to get traction and support from the Republican caucus,” Lee said. “Then another piece of legislation comes out to change the subject and then becomes the leading piece of legislation on testing reform in the Senate. That’s just wrong.”

Voting with Lee were Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican slated to become Senate president late next year; Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale; Sen. Debbie Mayfield, a Vero Beach Republican who serves as vice chair of the committee; and Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Opposing the motion were Sen. Anitere Flores, a Miami Republican who is sponsoring the bill; Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the Senate’s education budget-writing committee and has been closely involved in the testing debate; Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican who is serving as a de facto chairman of the Education Committee; and Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando.

The fight provided another indication of the complicated politics of testing in the Legislature, and particularly in the Senate. Many Republicans side with the education accountability movement, spearheaded by former Gov. Jeb Bush during his time in office and since promoted by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an organization set up by Bush.

But other members of the GOP have increasingly called for streamlining tests. Lee has openly questioned why students who do well on college-admissions tests also have to take the high school graduation exam. Other Republicans have aligned themselves with conservative activists who relate the state’s tests to the Common Core education standards, which they oppose.

Flores’ bill, dubbed the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation, is backed by the foundation. Critics note that the bill doesn’t explicitly eliminate any tests, though supporters counter that it could lead to some local tests being shelved because they don’t meet reporting standards in the legislation. It would also study allowing entrance exams like the SAT and ACT to be used instead of the graduation exam.

Montford’s proposal (SB 964) would, among other things, get rid of the requirement for end-of-course tests in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics; allow college-entrance exams like the SAT and ACT to be used in lieu of the state’s graduation test, without a study; and allow a pencil-and-paper option for the state’s current, computer-based tests.

Amendments to Flores’ bill filed with the Senate Education Committee would have adopted parts of Montford’s legislation, including removal of the same end-of-course tests and providing the pencil-and-paper option.

But Lee compared those amendments to “plagiarism,” said they were filed after the meeting began, and suggested he didn’t trust the intentions of those promoting Flores’ legislation once it got out of the committee. House Republicans are generally less interested than the Senate in making sweeping changes to the testing system.

“I don’t think you’re going to reform much testing anyway — not unless Senator Montford is out in front,” Lee said. “I think this is going to get watered down, and whatever we’re able to do to get out of the Senate here that we can declare victory and meaningful reform will get watered down, and what we see in messages (from the House) will be useless.”

But supporters of the legislation tabled Monday said they were confident it would return. Flores said she has been working with Montford on the bill.

“I think that it was important for Senator Lee to say, let’s spend some time talking about this,” she told reporters. “There were some late-filed amendments. Now we’ve just got a little more time to talk about the amendments.”

Simmons said much the same and brushed off concerns about why Flores’ bill was advanced instead of Montford’s.

“I go on the Ronald Reagan theory — it’s amazing what you can get done if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Simmons said. “I think that here, everyone should get the credit. Because the fact of it is that this is a collection of the thoughts of everyone.”

Lee, a former Senate president, remained skeptical.

“The question is, what are we going to do about testing?” he said. “And are we going to pass a piece of legislation whose talking points line up with the substance of the bill, or are we going to pass a bunch of sound bites that peak at the press conference but do nothing to reduce testing in our state? And I think we’re headed for the latter.”

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