Education has long been a top priority for Florida lawmakers and in 2017 education once again made a splash in a variety of headlines throughout the year.
Here’s a look back at the year’s top education stories in Florida:
Betsy DeVos Named Secretary of U.S. Department of Education
President Donald Trump took the reins of the U.S. in 2017, and with his presidency named a new Secretary of Education.
American businesswoman and Republican donor Betsy DeVos was confirmed by the U.S. Senate to the position in February. Like many new recruits in the Trump administration, DeVos has a Florida connection -- her family members were part owners of the Orlando Magic.
DeVos visited Florida frequently during her first year as Education Secretary to promote school choice, touring with Trump and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to schools in Orlando in March and heading to Tallahassee for a school visit in August.
All Work, No Play Makes Florida Kids Very, Very Dull Boys and Girls
Mandatory recess became a pivotal issue for state lawmakers during the 2017 legislative session, and many of them said Florida students needed recess every day to promote concentration and an overall better learning environment.
Groups of parents, dubbed “recess moms” pushed for the bill since they said would give kids a break from academics and allowed them to socialize.
"Research suggests that children need recess in their lives," said the bill’s Senate cosponsor Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "Our public schools need to find the time to allow kids to run around and be kids. Recess improves physical fitness of our children and may help them focus in class."
State lawmakers agreed, ultimately wrapping the recess legislation into the “education train” bill, HB 7069, which Gov. Rick Scott signed into law this summer. Florida schools are now required to have mandatory daily recess, with the exception of charter schools.
State Cuts Back Testing -- By a Little
Florida lawmakers have tried to eliminate excess tests in Florida schools over the years, and anti-testing advocates found a small victory during this year's legislative session.
In an effort to scale back an "oversaturation" of standardized tests, Florida lawmakers eliminated the Algebra II end-of-course exam this legislative session. The provision was part of HB 7069, a larger education bill signed into law by the governor in June.
Florida Lawmakers Push ‘Schools of Hope’ Legislation, School Districts Fight Back
One of the most controversial pieces of legislation to make its way through the 2017 legislative session was HB 7069, a large education package supported by House leadership but criticized by traditional public school advocates. Among the provisions added to the legislation: a $140 million "Schools of Hope" proposal, which pumps money into turning around failing public schools.
The large bill pitted school choice activists against traditional public school supporters and officials, who worried HB 7069 would funnel important funding away from schools and provide students with subpar classroom instruction as a result.
It was uncertain whether or not Gov. Scott would sign the education package, but he ultimately gave his seal of approval and the bill became law.
Over a dozen school districts have challenged the constitutionality of the ‘Schools of Hope’ legislation, arguing the law is unconstitutional because it limits the power of local school boards to “control and supervise” all public schools in their districts.
Appeals Court Tosses School Quality Suit
Florida’s First District Court of Appeals threw out a sweeping lawsuit alleging Florida violated its own constitution by failing to provide funding for “high quality” public schools in December.
The three-judge panel ruled unanimously to toss the suit earlier this month.
The original lawsuit, filed in 2009, asked state judges to determine whether or not Florida had provided adequate funding for thousands of public schools in Florida’s 67 counties, which serve nearly 3 million students each year.
The suit, whose plaintiffs include education advocacy groups Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now, in addition to several parents, was filed against the Florida State Board of Education, the Speaker of the House and the Senate President, demanding the state create a “remedial plan” to deal with budget cuts for “constitutional deficiencies” in Florida schools.
Ultimately, the judges sided with a Circuit Court judge who said the plaintiffs couldn’t meet the burden of proof to show the state wasn’t maintaining its constitutional commitment to Florida’s education system.
Attorneys for the state pointed to 20 years of progress for Florida’s education system, which has steadily improved graduation rates and overall academic successes. Florida’s graduation rate has soared over the last two decades, with almost 78 percent of high schoolers graduating in 2015.
The First District Court of Appeals began hearing the case in July and the suit finally appeared to reach the end of the lengthy legal road on Dec. 13.
“To agree with Appellants would entangle courts in the details and execution of educational policies and related appropriations, involving millions of students and billions of dollars, in an arena in which the courts possess no special competence or specific constitutional authority,” the judges wrote.
Reach reporter Allison Nielsen by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter: @AllisonNielsen.