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Judge Weighs DOE Handling of Teacher Law

May 30, 2012 - 6:00pm

More than a year after lawmakers passed a controversial plan to measure teacher performance, a judge Wednesday faced a basic question: Are state education officials being too heavy-handed in carrying out the law?

Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham held a four-hour hearing about whether the state Department of Education exceeded its legal power in a proposed rule that helps spell out how school districts will evaluate teachers.

Tony Demma, an attorney for the Florida Education Association union and two teachers, said the proposed rule includes such thing as an "elaborate 13-page checklist" that school districts would have to use to get state approval of their evaluation systems. He said the rule goes beyond requirements in state law and includes "vague and arcane phrases and clauses" that districts would be forced to meet.

But Jonathan Glogau, an attorney for the state, said the department is "well within" its authority in the proposed rule and is required by law to review and approve how districts evaluate teachers.

"How do you approve something if you don't tell the districts what the standards are they have to meet?" Glogau asked.

The case, which the FEA and teachers filed in March, deals with a dense mixture of state rule-making and educational standards. Among the education-world phrases tossed around during the hearing were "Florida Educator Accomplished Practices," a "value-added formula" and "high effect size indicators."

But bigger picture, the case is part of an ongoing debate about one of the most controversial issues in Florida's education system. Over the objections of the FEA and many teachers, the Republican-controlled Legislature last year passed the law to use student test scores and other criteria to evaluate teacher performance and to link it to pay.

The union also has spearheaded a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of the law, contending that it violates collective-bargaining rights. The lawsuit, filed last year in Leon County circuit court, is pending.

Van Laningham, who won't rule until later this summer, is considering narrower issues in the challenge to the proposed rule. The FEA and teachers are not attacking the overall law -- just the way the Department of Education plans to carry it out.

It is common for the Legislature to rely on state agencies to approve rules detailing how laws will work. But agencies can face legal challenges if they exceed the authority lawmakers have given them to write the rules.

Last year's law, dubbed the "Student Success Act," gave the Department of Education the role of approving and monitoring evaluation systems that districts will use. It also included criteria that will lead, in part, to teacher performance being tagged as highly effective; effective; "needs improvement"; or unsatisfactory.

But the rule challenge questions whether the department is placing requirements on school districts that go beyond what was included in the law. An example is a requirement to use "high effect size indicators," which Kathy Hebda, a deputy chancellor at DOE, testified are research-based indicators that, if used properly, can help children learn.

Opponents contend that the law approved last year does not include such indicators.

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