The Florida Legislature continues to debate the expansion of the state’s tax credit scholarship program. With large Republican majorities in both houses, the proposal is certain to succeed if a difference of opinion between the presiding officers of the two houses on accountability can be worked out. For much of the last month, Senate President Don Gaetz had insisted that a condition of the tax credit scholarship program expansion be that students at schools participating in the program begin to take the same standardized tests taken by students in traditional public schools and charter schools. The House leadership and bill sponsor have resisted such a requirement, arguing that tax credit scholarship schools already take nationally recognized standardized tests in language arts and math like the SAT-10. In addition, they have argued that parent choice provides the ultimate accountability. There is presently no requirement that tax credit scholarship schools test their students in science.
On Friday, Gary Fineout of the Associated Press tweeted that Senator Gaetz’s position had shifted a bit. According to Fineout, Gaetz said that he still wants tax credit scholarship schools to use a “common assessment”, but that “he is not insisting that students take the FCAT but parents need to be able to compare schools.” The shift could mean that Gaetz is ready to agree to an expansion of the tax credit scholarship program without the requirement that participating schools test their students in science.
Florida’s standardized testing program includes the state’s Science FCAT tests for 5th and 8th graders as well as the Biology end-of-course exam. These tests reflect the state’s unequivocal standards on evolution, which generated a whirlwind of controversy in the months prior to their adoption by the State Board of Education on February 19, 2008 by a narrow 4-3 vote. The controversy was so intense that some participants felt physically jeopardized.
The February 19, 2008 adoption meeting began with brief arguments by 20 speakers – 10 favoring the standards being considered that included evolution and 10 who opposed the language being considered by the board. Some of the opponents of the evolution language in the proposed standards argued for a proposal for “academic freedom”, which was intended to “protect teachers and students from retaliation for discussing the scientific evidence for and against Darwin’s theory,” according the Discovery Institute, a critic of naturalistic evolution education and the primary promoter of “academic freedom” proposals.
The 19th speaker and last opponent to speak at the adoption meeting was John Stemberger, an attorney based in Orlando and the President of the Florida Family Policy Council, who predicted the rapid expansion in enrollment at schools outside the traditional public system that did not require students to learn about evolution:
In closing, I think it’s very important for this board to recognize parents in record numbers are pulling their children from public schools. There’s a reason for that. Homeschooling, private schools, virtual schools, charter schools are growing in popularity with every year in part because of widespread frustration and disappointment with public schools. I will submit to you, ladies and gentlemen, if this board does not adopt the academic freedom proposal language, the rate of exodus from public schools will be an exponential high that you will experience in the future. We respectfully urge you to adopt the Academic Freedom proposal.
Stemberger’s prediction has certainly come true.
You can hear Stemberger’s entire speech here – Stemberger’s talk begins just after the 1:59 mark in Part 1.