March 18, 2016

Direct funding for after-school programs intact, despite Senate's push for competitive grant

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@ByKristenMClark

How Florida gives state money to organizations that provide after-school care, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs, won’t change anytime soon.

The 2016-17 budget that Gov. Rick Scott signed Thursday maintains a decades-old funding structure that designates money to a handful of prominent organizations — which means an ambitious, but controversial, reform plan pitched by Republican Senate leaders is on hold for at least another year.

Administrators of affected groups said they are glad lawmakers didn’t embrace the Senate’s idea to create a competitive grant process this year. The proposed program — introduced midway through the nine-week session — would have included several million dollars more in available aid, but it would’ve made many more non-profits eligible for a single pot of money.

Traditional programs opposed creating a competitive grant on such short notice, fearing it would have caused their funding to, at best, be interrupted or, at worst, be cut. The taxpayer aid helps pay for homework assistance, mentoring and gang-prevention services for children and teens often living in Florida’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

More here.

Photo credit: House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media on Sunday, March 6, 2016, after a budget conference meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER / Tampa Bay Times

March 10, 2016

Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill

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@ByKristenMClark

Calling it "too much of a nuclear issue," the Florida House on Thursday voted to remove the Senate's proposed reforms for charter school capital funding from a massive education bill that lawmakers are trying to negotiate with a day left in the 2016 session.

Mostly along party-lines, the House approved a 168-page, almost-complete re-write of HB 7029, after the Senate sent over its approved version on Wednesday.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen -- who sponsored the re-write -- said the Senate's plans for changing charter school capital funding lacked a reliable, non-political formula, which the House couldn't accept.

Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had dueling proposals this session to, in some cases, drastically change charter schools' eligibility for state tax dollars they can use for maintenance and construction projects.

Gaetz's plan, in particular, would have made it more difficult for many charter schools to get capital funding, particularly those run by companies looking to make a profit. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. 

Citing a disagreement with the Senate, Fresen said multiple times on the House floor that he'd removed all capital funding provisions related to charter schools from his re-write of HB 7029.

But that's not entirely so.

While Gaetz's proposal was scrapped, a line of Fresen's own plan was slipped into the latest iteration of the bill.

That change of a single digit could have a significant impact on several charter schools by allowing them to be eligible for capital dollars a full year faster:

 

Continue reading "Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill" »

March 07, 2016

Sweeping education bill - with capital funding reforms - ready for Senate vote on Monday

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida senators are poised on Monday to vote on a wide-ranging education bill that includes numerous high-profile proposals -- including reforms for capital funding for traditional and charter schools, open enrollment for all Florida public school students, more accountability measures for charter schools, and immediate eligibility and recruiting penalties for 285,000 high school athletes.

A far more simple and narrow version of the bill (HB 7029) passed the House last month, but in the Senate, it was loaded up with amendments spearheaded by Sen. Don Gaetz, both in committee last week and on the floor Friday.

The version that senators will vote on Monday clocks in at 132 pages. Many of the proposals are included in bills that the Senate and House have either passed off the floor or considered in committee.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, on Friday added to the bill his plan for changing how traditional and charter schools receive capital funding from the state and how they can use that money.

The proposal bans charter schools from receiving capital dollars for "private enrichment," and it steers funding to charter schools that mostly serve impoverished students or those who have disabilities. School districts also could be penalized -- by losing state capital funding -- if they exceed a state-imposed cap on spending for construction and maintenance projects, unless the cost overruns were due to "extraordinary circumstances."

Gaetz's plan is a counter-proposal to a measure by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sought to rein in districts' "excessive" spending and change how charter schools qualify for capital dollars. The House has yet to consider Fresen's plan on the floor.

Gaetz's proposed capital funding reforms are also attached to a different wide-ranging education bill (SB 524) that the Senate postponed for the past three days of session. Indicating that bill might have stalled, Gaetz's re-writes to HB 7029 have included several duplicative policy changes that now appear in both bills.

One high-profile policy change that's not included in HB 7029: enacting in state law the "Best & Brightest" program that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores.

Despite opposition from Republican and Democratic senators who want a floor vote on the issue, House and Senate leaders are poised to extend it another year only through budget language.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Sunday "we are going to agree to fund it at some level."  The exact figure should be revealed Monday when Lee and Land O'Lakes Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House appropriations chairman, announce publicly the differences they've settled in the Legislature's proposed education budget.

March 04, 2016

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise

Capture@ByKristenMClark

As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise

Capture@ByKristenMClark

As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »

March 03, 2016

Don Gaetz backs off attempt to revive open-carry proposal

@ByKristenMClark

Sen. Don Gaetz today backed down from plans to make a last-ditch effort in getting his open-carry proposal heard this session.

The Niceville Republican had wanted to amend his plan on to a different concealed weapons bill that senators heard on the chamber floor today.

But the attempt was short-lived.

Ever since Gaetz filed the proposed amendment last night, some senators had been coordinating to thwart Gaetz by citing Senate rules.

Heading into the Senate session this morning, Gaetz acknowledged the opposition but said "we'll give it a try."

But when SB 612 came up early this afternoon, Gaetz said he'd been advised by Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that his amendment was "out of order," because it was the subject of his standalone bill that stalled in committee.

Gaetz said "in deference to Senate rules" he would withdraw the open-carry amendment.

Gaetz's bill -- which would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida -- cleared the its first committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up.

Diaz de la Portilla's decision to not even consider open-carry sparked anger from Gaetz two weeks ago -- which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, with whom Gaetz has had a long-standing feud.

The Republican-heavy House passed its version of the open-carry bill in February, by a 80-38 vote.

March 02, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate

@ByKristenMClark

A controversial bonus plan that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their ACT/SAT scores faces a tough fight in the Florida Senate -- and that battle is bogging down a massive education bill that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to use as a vehicle to permanently extend the "Best & Brightest" bonuses.

Rank-and-file senators in both parties are, at least, reluctant or, at most, altogether opposed to the program. Echoing other critics, they argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers, since there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be good teachers.

But Senate Republican leaders say they want to make a "good faith effort" to support "Best & Brightest" because it's a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who's in line to become House Speaker in November.

"The process works best when we respect each chamber's priorities, as much as we respect our own," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this evening.

Gaetz's education bill (SB 524) that includes "Best & Brightest" -- among a dozen other policy proposals -- was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor today, but dozens of amendments were added to it as late as this morning. Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, asked for his bill to be postponed so senators could digest the myriad proposed changes.

The bill could come back up again as early as Thursday as part of the Senate's "Special Order" calendar.

Among the proposed amendments to SB 524 are efforts by several senators to either strip the "Best & Brightest" bonuses entirely from the bill or, if that fails, significantly change the eligibility criteria, so that teachers could be awarded based on different benchmarks.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate" »

Sen. Don Gaetz wants to revive stalled open-carry proposal through floor amendment

@ByKristenMClark

There's a reason lawmakers are hesitant to declare bills dead until the end of session, because there's a lot of procedural maneuvering that can be done to keep stalled bills alive, or at least out of the grave.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz is employing one such tactic to breathe life into his controversial proposal that would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz this evening filed an amendment to a different concealed weapons bill, in the hopes of adding his open-carry measure to it.

Gaetz's bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up. (Two weeks ago, Diaz de la Portilla's decision sparked anger from Gaetz, which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.)

The bill Gaetz wants to add open-carry to is narrowly titled "an act relating to slungshots." Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is seeking to remove slungshots from the state's concealed weapons statute.

Hays' bill (SB 612) -- and Gaetz's proposed amendment -- is on the calendar for senators to consider Thursday.

February 27, 2016

House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars

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@ByKristenMClark

Legislative leaders were close to hashing out a deal Saturday evening to provide record-level K-12 education funding next school year -- without forcing businesses and homeowners to shoulder hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding through local property taxes.

The proposal is a gesture of significant compromise by the Florida House.

But by using a greater share of state dollars instead, the $458 million proposed increase for 2016-17 is far less than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott or House or Senate leaders had originally sought.

Scott's recommendation to the Legislature was for a $507 million increase, almost 90 percent of which would have come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay.

By comparison, the House had originally proposed a $601 million increase, while the Senate wanted $650 million extra.

Both initial legislative budget plans mirrored Scott's funding formula, but Senate leaders have, for weeks, argued that increasing K-12 funding through the "required local effort" -- as Scott proposed -- would constitute a "tax increase."

Scott and some House members disagreed with that assertion, arguing that the tax rate wouldn't have changed. Even so, property tax bills would've gone up because property values have rebounded statewide.

On Saturday, House members -- led by education budget conference committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen -- shifted their tone.

"There was obviously a lot of concern by members of both parties as to how those funds were distributed," the Miami Republican said.

After re-analyzing their budget allocations, Fresen said he and committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz "made the policy decision overall to apply more general revenue ... (and) apply less of what could be considered -- whether construed properly or not -- as a property tax increase."

Continue reading "House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars" »

February 26, 2016

2 wide-ranging education bills clear Florida Senate Appropriations

@ByKristenMClark

Nearly 30 education-related topics — including some of the most high-profile and contentious policies discussed this year — have been folded into two bills that the Florida Senate’s budget committee approved Thursday.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz proposed sweeping rewrites of two of his bills in order to give House and Senate priorities a better chance at passage as the Legislature nears the final two weeks of session.

Both of the bills (SB 524 and SB 1166) were originally only three pages long and dealt narrowly with public universities’ performance funding and education funding, respectively.

The 59-page rewrite to SB 524 includes such controversial issues as the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus plan, the Senate’s proposed reforms for capital funding to charter schools and school districts, and at least a dozen more topics.

Similarly, the new, 85-page version of SB 1166 now includes: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures and high school athletics proposals, among other topics.

The individual policy proposals are working their way through the Senate in various forms, with a few — like the teacher bonuses — facing difficulty passing on their own.

More here.