You might have followed the debate this year over Florida's revision of its state science standards, but it's a good bet you've never heard of something called the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee.
Yet that heretofore obscure panel is a player in odd new developments that could result in that document having to go through another review by state officials.
The science standards that were narrowly approved by the state board of education in February, you might recall, won praise from the scientific community for offering a fuller treatment of the theory of evolution. Florida's previous standards did not even mention the E-word. Some religious organizations opposed the standards' revamped description of evolution, saying it wrongly excluded alternative explanations for life's development (which are rejected by the majority of scientists). The state board of education approved the standards by a vote of 4-3.
But a few months later, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1908, which certainly wasn't on my radar screen. That measure requires the state board of education to replace existing state standards in all subjects, known as the Sunshine State Standards, with Next Generation Sunshine State Standards by Dec. 31, 2011. What does it mean to adopt Next Generation standards? The law says that new standards, in all subjects, should place an emphasis on critical thinking, problem solving, and be aligned with postsecondary requirements, among other requirements. But the law also requires that all state academic standards need to be revised and approved by the commissioner and state board of education, specifically as "Next Generation" standards. The science standards approved a few months earlier, of course, were not.
But why would Florida officials have to re-approve science standards they labored over for months? This is where the Joint Administrative Procedures Committee comes in.
The committee's job is to review rules proposed by state agencies to see if they comply with Florida law. Agencies are required to submit proposed language to JPAC for review. If JPAC's staff attorney believes an agency's proposed rule exceeds its authority under the law, the attorney can recommend that the full committee of six legislators (made up of three Democrats, three Republicans) vote to reject the rule.
Agencies often seek informal JPAC advice before putting forward rules. Last month, Florida Department of Education officials wrote to JPAC and asked whether the newly approved science standards would comply with law requiring "Next Generation" standards. The JPAC staff attorney, Brian Moore, in a courtesy opinion, said he did not believe the new Florida standards would comply.
I spoke with Moore, who made it clear that he wasn't making any judgment about the scientific merits of the new standards. His only interest is what the law requires, and in this case, it appears that the new science standards are out of compliance, given the requirement that such documents be approved as "Next Generation" standards. So they'd have to be approved with this designation by 2011.
It's unclear what happens next. It's possible, Moore explained, that Florida's commissioner of education could seek to have various experts certify that the recently approved science standards comply with the Next Generation law. But it appears likely that new standards would have to be re-approved in some form by the state board of education.
An organization that fought hard for approval of the new standards, Florida Citizens for Science, heard about this issue early, and they're worried about it, as you might imagine. The organization offers its own interpretation of events here.