Dis­tricts told to toe line

The state flexes power to en­sure schools fol­low through on “re­quired in­struc­tion” laws.

Tampa Bay Times - - Front Page - Times Staff Writer BY JEF­FREY S. SOLOCHEK

Men­tal health. Ca­reer plan­ning. Per­sonal fi­nances.

The list of top­ics that Florida law­mak­ers have re­quired school dis­tricts to cover in class­rooms con­tin­ued to grow this year — some with little ad­vance no­tice or fund­ing to sup­port them.

The men­tal health man­date, for in­stance, came from the Florida Board of Ed­u­ca­tion less than a month be­fore classes were set to re­sume. It re­quires school dis­tricts to pro­vide five hours of “men­tal and emo­tional health ed­u­ca­tion” each year for stu­dents in mid­dle and high school.

“The rule is, I think, in­cred­i­ble,” said board mem­ber Ben Gib­son.

In past years, such a late-adopted rule would have caused a few heads to turn, but wouldn’t have caused much panic. The state trusted dis­tricts to im­ple­ment the many re­quire­ments passed down from law­mak­ers with­out too much in­ter­fer­ence.

But Florida’s new ed­u­ca­tion com­mis­sioner, Richard Corcoran, is tak­ing a more ag­gres­sive stance. And he’s guid­ing the State Board to flex au­thor­ity it rarely wielded in the past, some­times threat­en­ing con­se­quences if school dis­tricts don’t com­ply.

Wit­ness the re­cent sit­u­a­tion in Palm Beach County, where Spanish River High prin­ci­pal Wil­liam Lat­son told a par­ent he could not prove the Holocaust oc­curred. That in­ci­dent prompted Corcoran to de­mand Palm Beach su­per­in­ten­dent Don­ald Fen­noy show ex­actly how his dis­trict teaches Holocaust history as re­quired by the state law that de­tails ev­ery topic the Leg­is­la­ture says pub­lic schools should be teach­ing.

The so-called “re­quired in­struc­tion” law cov­ers every­thing from the core sub­jects to more spe­cific lessons such as kind­ness to an­i­mals, the sac­ri­fices of mil­i­tary veter­ans and the re­cently ap­proved classes on men­tal health.

“I in­tend to ex­er­cise all av­enues af­forded to me through Florida statutes and rules to in­ves­ti­gate and act,” Corcoran told Fen­noy in his July 10 letter.

Soon af­ter, the de­part­ment told the other 66 school dis­tricts in Florida to ex­plain how they are teach­ing the Holocaust, as well as fol­low­ing brand-new leg­is­la­tion treat­ing anti-Semitism in schools as racism.

By early Au­gust, the de­part­ment an­nounced it was work­ing on a new rule re­quir­ing dis­tricts to “doc­u­ment” that they were fol­low­ing the re­quired in­struc­tion law.

The law does not ap­ply to char­ter schools.

The new, tough-sound­ing en­force­ment ap­proach out of Corcoran’s de­part­ment has raised some eye­brows at a time when the state has con­vened a grand jury to de­ter­mine whether school dis­tricts are fol­low­ing the state’s school se­cu­rity law. The State Board also has openly talked of school takeovers in dis­tricts where it isn’t sat­is­fied with im­prove­ment ef­forts at low-per­form­ing cam­puses.

State Rep. Anna Eska­mani, an Or­lando Demo­crat and one of the state’s most lib­eral law­mak­ers, called the de­part­ment’s steps “co­er­cive” and “threat­en­ing.”

She said she found it ironic that con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­cans who bris­tle at fed­eral ed­u­ca­tion man­dates as in­tru­sive would turn around and ex­ert state-level pow­ers to im­pose their own vi­sion on lo­cal school dis­tricts.

She sug­gested the Ed­u­ca­tion De­part­ment’s new pos­ture, paired with the en­force­ment ham­mer that ap­pears on the horizon, are set­ting the stage for the state to take con­trol in dis­tricts that aren’t hew­ing to the play­book.

“It’s an op­por­tu­nity to put peo­ple in who fit your phi­los­o­phy,” Eska­mani said. “And it’s not even subtle.”

Corcoran, in­ter­viewed Mon­day as he toured Tampa’s Broward Ele­men­tary on the first day of school, ac­knowl­edged the new ap­proach.

“It’s just, ac­count­abil­ity works,” he said. “And so in all th­ese ar­eas that the Leg­is­la­ture has spo­ken and gover­nor has spo­ken — they said, ‘This mat­ters to us in help­ing chil­dren to get a world class ed­u­ca­tion’ — we’re go­ing to fol­low up and make sure that all the stuff that they have been duly elected to put into place to help chil­dren is get­ting done.”

Se­nate Repub­li­can Leader Kath­leen Pas­sidomo of Naples said she had not heard any­thing about the de­part­ment or board tak­ing a dog­matic stance that dis­tricts must buckle down, or else.

“The most log­i­cal way to look at it is this: Is the Board of Ed­u­ca­tion do­ing their job to make sure, if there is a com­plaint, if there is a prob­lem, it is han­dled?” Pas­sidomo said. “I’m sure it is not a global, ‘I’m big­ger than you are.’ ”

She noted that, in all lev­els of gov­ern­ment, there have been times when lo­cal of­fi­cials have flouted state law. If it hap­pens enough, the state might step in.

“It’s un­for­tu­nate, be­cause the dis­tricts that do their job and do the right thing are bur­dened with an­other leg­isla­tive di­rec­tive be­cause some dis­tricts are not re­spond­ing well,” Pas­sidomo said.

Sup­port for added en­force­ment of the re­quired in­struc­tion law have not been lim­ited to one side of the po­lit­i­cal spectrum, though.

Rep. Geral­dine Thomp­son, an­other Or­ange County Demo­crat, re­cently an­nounced her plan to file leg­is­la­tion to hold su­per­in­ten­dents ac­count­able if they don’t fol­low that law — es­pe­cially as it re­lates to African-Amer­i­can and Holocaust history.

Thomp­son, who did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment, told the Florida Phoenix news site that th­ese re­quire­ments have been on the books for decades, yet many schools barely teach the ma­te­rial.

“No one is re­port­ing, no one is in­spect­ing. There is no ac­count­abil­ity and no reper­cus­sions and con­se­quences,” she told the on­line pub­li­ca­tion.

Sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tions have led to in­ter­ven­tions be­fore, as Pas­sidomo ob­served. Teacher eval­u­a­tions of­fer one ex­am­ple.

The Leg­is­la­ture had passed a little-fol­lowed law re­quir­ing dis­tricts to use stu­dent per­for­mance data to help eval­u­ate teach­ers. Re­peated bat­tles over per­for­mance pay, with lim­ited com­pli­ance, led di­rectly to the cur­rent law that in­cludes re­vamped pay sched­ules tied to out­comes, and an­nual rather than con­tin­u­ing em­ploy­ment con­tracts.

School dis­trict of­fi­cials aim to nav­i­gate the re­quired in­struc­tion is­sue bet­ter.

They start con­ver­sa­tions by not­ing how the ma­te­rial, whether women’s con­tri­bu­tion to U.S. history or kind­ness to an­i­mals, is im­por­tant for stu­dents to learn.

The next step is to fig­ure out how to in­cor­po­rate them into the school day with the least amount of dis­rup­tion.

Many of the re­quired lessons, af­ter all, fit neatly into ex­ist­ing aca­demic stan­dards and cour­ses needed to ad­vance in school and grad­u­ate.

“For us, it’s all about look­ing for nat­u­ral en­try points,” said Marcy Het­zler-Net­tles, Pasco County as­sis­tant su­per­in­ten­dent for mid­dle schools.

Sev­eral of the men­tal health ex­pec­ta­tions, for ex­am­ple, fall into cur­rent health and coun­sel­ing cour­ses, she said. The key for dis­tricts, she ex­plained, is work­ing through what’s al­ready in place and en­sur­ing all stu­dents get the ma­te­rial with­out dis­rupt­ing other re­quire­ments.

“We’re al­ways pressed for time,” said Matt Blum, a Pinel­las County high school so­cial stud­ies spe­cial­ist. “So lever­ag­ing the struc­tures we al­ready have can be help­ful.”

Dis­tricts of­ten have the ma­te­ri­als avail­able, Blum added. If they don’t, he con­tin­ued, they of­ten have ac­cess to out­side re­sources from mu­se­ums and other ex­perts.

“A text­book is just one re­source,” he said. “And it shouldn’t be the only re­source.”

Get­ting rated for im­ple­ment­ing re­quired lessons isn’t nec­es­sar­ily new, Blum noted. More of­ten than not, though, it was a vol­un­tary pro­gram, such as the African-Amer­i­can History Task Force’s recog­ni­tion of ex­em­plary per­for­mance.

The De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion ap­pears poised to take it to the next level. The word­ing of its an­tic­i­pated rule has not yet been pub­lished to know the full ex­tent.

Board chair­man Andy Tuck sug­gested hav­ing such a rule makes sense.

“School dis­tricts have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­vide the re­quired in­struc­tion as out­lined in the law,” he said in an email.

Florida Ed­u­ca­tion Com­mis­sioner Richard Corcoran

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