February 11, 2016

Florida Senate's reforms on school districts' capital spending differs on charter school aid

@ByKristenMClark

Responding to a controversial plan fast-tracked by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, a Florida Senate subcommittee is proposing its own reforms to how much school districts can spend on capital costs and what access the state's 650 charter schools should have to state and local dollars.

But the Senate's ideas don't go so far in charter schools' favor as those included in Fresen's proposal, which was advanced by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday.

Rather, the counter-proposal unveiled Thursday by the Senate's education budget chairman, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, could actually limit charter schools' potential funding, while still reining in how much districts spend on projects.

It would crackdown on what Gaetz called charter school "real-estate schemes" by prohibiting schools from using taxpayer dollars on "private enrichment" projects.

It also does away with what Senate staff called a "fairly tricky, involved" funding formula that decides how much capital money individual charter schools get and, instead, would prioritize money to schools that help primarily impoverished students or those with disabilities.

"We felt that we would try to add our values to the discussion," Gaetz said Thursday, adding that his plan "re-syncs the values" originally intended for charter schools of offering quality, alternative schools in low-income neighborhoods or innovative programs not offered in traditional public schools.

"I think to some extent we may have gotten away from that a little bit," said Gaetz, a former superintendent of the Okaloosa County School District. "We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience."

It's unclear how the proposal might fare in the House, where a few key members -- including Fresen -- have close ties to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed. (A member of Gaetz’s committee, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, also has connections; he and his wife run a charter school.) 

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February 07, 2016

Florida Senate's plan for after-school programs has local providers rattled

05NC Britto paint party CLO

@ByKristenMClark

Republican leaders of the Florida Senate want to drastically change how they dole out funding for after-school programs that provide homework help, mentoring and gang prevention services to thousands of children, often living in Florida’s most impoverished and vulnerable neighborhoods.

Senators want to increase funding, provide it to more organizations and ensure the dollars are spent on programs proven to bolster children’s academic performance.

But without any notice about the proposed change, administrators of non-profits that rely year after year on the designated state funding said they feel blindsided and rattled with uncertainty and questions.

“It came out of nowhere,” said Daniel Lyons, executive director for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs. “It just caught us off guard with how it all developed. ... It felt like a sucker-punch.”

Why? More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

February 03, 2016

Senator: Teacher bonus program needs to be vetted before funding assured

@ByKristenMClark

The chairman of the Florida Senate's education budget committee said Wednesday there's a very good reason the chamber didn't include funding toward continuing the new "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program in its proposed budget for 2016-17: The program hasn't been vetted by the chamber yet.

A bill to continue the program, currently in its inaugural year, is moving slowly through the Senate, but it's far from guaranteed to pass

"It’s my sense we need to fully vet the policy; we didn’t have a chance to do that last year," Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, told the chamber's Appropriations Committee.

The House debated the program last spring, and first-year funding of $44 million was ultimately added to the final state budget during the special session over the summer.

The controversial program offers bonuses to teachers who are rated “highly effective” and score in the top 20th percentile on their SAT or ACT exams when they took them in high school. First-year teachers are eligible simply based on their exam scores.

It is a priority item for the Florida House and the brainchild of House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami. Legislation to renew it is ready for a full House vote.

Fresen describes it as both a recruitment and a retention tool, but critics say there's no evidence of a correlation between teachers' old high school test scores and student performance. The state's largest teachers' union also argues it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Acknowledging the "confusion" and "frustration" teachers have expressed, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, on Wednesday asked Gaetz for an update on the Senate's proposed funding for the program -- which was notably absent from its initial budget plan released last week.

"We can have full a debate on 'Best & Brightest' and any changes that might be necessary to the program, prior to making any kind of commitment on behalf of the Senate for funding," Gaetz said.

The House budget includes $45 million for the teacher bonuses, $1 million more than this year. Republican Gov. Rick Scott's budget plan recommended $39 million toward it.

Two bills could be vehicles for the "Best & Brightest" program in the Senate: a standalone bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, or another by Gaetz, which deals with performance funding and is ready for consideration by the full Appropriations Committee, should the panel take it up.

Flores on Wednesday joined other Republican and Democratic senators who have previously expressed hesitation about the bonus program's eligibility requirements.

She questioned rewarding teachers based on the their own SAT scores, "something that's outdated, and seen as an input rather than an output, as it relates to student success." She said she would prefer to base bonuses on whether teachers have national board certifications -- which the Legislature used to do.

"I think that would be a better route for us to take," Flores said.

Gaetz said the Legislature stopped funding that program during the economic downturn several years ago, in part, as a cost-cutting measure because there was no evidence proving "a cause-and-effect relationship" between teachers' certifications and student performance -- a complaint of the "Best & Brightest" program today.

January 29, 2016

Florida House wants $601M increase to K-12 education funding

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House is also seeking a big boost in K-12 education funding next year, proposing an extra $601 million more for schools.

Both the House and Senate are seeking to increase K-12 education funding even more so than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott has proposed.

Scott called for $500 million in extra funding. The House would increase that by another $100 million, while the Senate has pitched an extra $650 million, or $150 million more than Scott's plan.

But the the point of contention continues to be how much of those new dollars will come from the state versus growing revenues from local property taxes.

Some Republicans in both chambers argue increasing the required local effort constitutes a "tax increase," and they're not on board with that -- especially in the Senate.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who chairs the Senate budget subcommittee for education, said his panel would consider several alternatives early next week, including replacing local property taxes with state tax revenue. More here.

Some lawmakers would prefer scaling back the local dollars and counting that toward the $1 billion in tax cuts that Scott wants, or even just simply acknowledging that the increase in education spending would cut into the overall tax cuts.

"If we cut taxes here a billion dollars and raise them $500 million at home, we need to call it a $500 million tax decrease, not $1 billion," said Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, a member of the House education budget committee.

That chamber's plan uses Scott's method of predominantly relying on local property tax revenue -- which House Education Budget Committee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describes as an "adjustment with no actual increase in the millage."

But even if the tax rate doesn't change, property owners' tax bills will likely still be higher because of improved property values statewide.

Fresen said the proportion of local taxes toward education declined from 2009 to 2013, "so during a time of declining tax rolls, it was essentially a tax cut," so he said this adjusts for that now that property values are rebounding.

Fresen rolled out the House proposal during a swift discussion on Thursday. The chamber unveiled its full budget plan this morning.

For K-12 education, the House recommends a total budget of $20.3 billion, with $7,232 in per-pupil funding. The current level is about $7,107 per student this year.

To fund the House's plan of an extra $601 million in K-12 education, about 78 percent of that -- or $505 million -- would come from required and discretionary local dollars. About $95 million would come from the state.

By comparison, Scott's budget proposal called for a $20.2 billion education budget with funding of $7,221 per student. He wants to increase K-12 dollars by $507.3 million in 2016-17. But only about $80 million of that would be extra state aide, while $427.3 million — 85 percent — would come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay

Meanwhile, the Senate's budget plan is about $50 million more than the House's and $150 million more than the governor's. It's roughly $20.3 billion, with $7,249 in per-pupil funding.

To fund its $650 million increase -- for now -- the Senate has penciled in similar proportions of local and state funding as the House and governor, but Gaetz expects that to change given his and his colleagues' discontent with that calculation.

January 27, 2016

Allowing alternatives to statewide standardized test gets praise from Florida Senate committee but faces obstacles in House

Gaetz

@ByKristenMClark

A plan to let Florida school districts and parents choose alternative tests in lieu of the controversial statewide assessments cleared its first Senate committee on Wednesday with strong bipartisan support.

But the state's top education official has voiced resistance to the idea, its chances appear bleak at getting heard in the Florida House and critics who oppose Common Core standards and high-stakes testing said the proposal doesn't go far enough to fix Florida's flawed education accountability system.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said his bill (SB 1360) is about offering choice and eliminating duplicative testing -- not replacing the Florida Standards Assessments, which debuted last year with myriad technical and administration problems.

"If you want to repeal the FSA, this is not your bill," Gaetz said. "If you don’t like tests that have consequences and measurements that have results, this is not your bill."

Acknowledging the FSA's "rocky start," Gaetz said his proposal "saves the infrastructure of accountability" Florida has for K-12 public education and it would save hours of teaching time spent on redundant assessments.

Continue reading "Allowing alternatives to statewide standardized test gets praise from Florida Senate committee but faces obstacles in House" »

January 26, 2016

Florida Senate panel proposes $650M increase to K-12 education funding in 2016-17

@ByKristenMClark

The education budget committee of the Florida Senate wants to raise funding for K-12 public schools by $650 million next year, about $150 million more than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott proposed.

The Senate Education Appropriations Committee rolled out its 2016-17 budget proposal on Tuesday, with plans to discuss it further on Thursday and send it to the full Appropriations Committee by week's end. The House budget committee plans to unveil its budget plan on Thursday.

Substantial changes in the Senate education budget committee's recommendation are unlikely, chairman Sen. Don Gaetz cautioned before he made his presentation.

"The concrete has been poured and it's hardening," said Gaetz, R-Niceville.

A big unknown, however, is how the $650 million increase would be funded, Gaetz said.

Continue reading "Florida Senate panel proposes $650M increase to K-12 education funding in 2016-17" »

January 07, 2016

Legislature to consider allowing alternatives to controversial FSA

Florida Legislature(2)

@ByKristenMClark

Although Florida lawmakers don't plan to revamp the beleaguered Florida Standards Assessments this session, they're likely to consider a related proposal to let students take other standardized tests -- like the ACT or SAT -- instead.

State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, filed this week a highly anticipated plan to let students make use of "rigorous alternative assessment options" in lieu of taking the controversial FSA, which had a rocky debut last year that fueled a mounting resistance to standardized tests and high-stakes exams.

"The FSA has been, at best, a mixed bag," Gaetz told the Herald/Times last month, as he was drafting his proposal. "The implementation problems associated with FSA have eroded the public’s confidence in the result. The fact that the FSA was developed by an entity that is not well known and is therefore not well-respected by the public has had a negative consequence."

Gaetz's plan would allow parents and students to choose from a variety of national name-brand assessments that measure students' knowledge on given subjects. The options he puts on the table include various ACT exams for students in third grade through high school, and also for high-schoolers: the pre-SAT, SAT, Advanced Placement tests and industry certification exams, among others.

It’s unclear yet how well Gaetz’s bill will be received. At least one Democrat is on board, and other lawmakers from both parties have said they’re interested in the concept.

“It is certainly worthwhile, and it is an appropriate step especially in terms of the recent history of the FSA and the difficulties we’ve had,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who also works as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. “Florida has embraced the idea of choice, so why not give parents and students a choice?”

Gaetz said Thursday he is talking with “influential members of the House” to also get it considered there, possibly through a committee bill.

The bill (SB 1360) calls for implementing the use of alternative assessments as early as next school year. School boards throughout the state would have the power to choose which options to make available in each district, but the FSA would continue to be the uniform option statewide, Gaetz said.

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October 28, 2015

Conflicts erupt as Florida Senate passes map 22-18

via @MaryEllenKlas

The personal and political conflicts that have divided Florida Senate Republicans for months reached the boiling point on Wednesday as the Senate narrowly approved a redrawn redistricting map 22-18 and two powerful senators pointedly used the opportunity to finger each other for the chamber’s mistakes.

Democrats voted together in opposition to the map, which they said would be struck down by the court as unconstitutional violation of the anti-gerrymandering rules of the Florida Constitution. They were joined by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and three other Republicans.

Following the debate, however, angry emotions spilled into view as Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who was redistricting chairman when the invalidated 2012 maps were approved, rose for a rare “point of personal privilege," a rule that supercedes all others, and used it to criticize Latvala for blaming Gaetz for the Legislature having to redo the Senate map.

“Sen. Latvala says Don Gaetz is the cause for the special session. You decide. I am am sorry for my mistakes. Sen. Latvala should be sorry for his,’’ he said, reading from prepared remarks. “I take no satisfaction from this exchange. I did not seek it. But when a bully throws a sucker punch, you hit back and never give in.”

Over the last two months, Latvala has been harshly critical of Senate leadership because of the court’s rejection of the map drawn during the 2012 term, pointing out a Herald/Times report that the taxpayer cost of the redistricting litigation has risen to $11 million and suggesting the blame should be placed on Gaetz.

In arguing against the map on Wednesday, he did not mention Gaetz by name but said, “there’s a lot of doubt whether we here in this Senate have handled this issue in a way that we can be proud of.”

Continue reading "Conflicts erupt as Florida Senate passes map 22-18" »

October 22, 2015

Florida police, sheriffs groups oppose open-carry gun proposals

Javier ortiz

@ByKristenMClark

Groups representing Florida sheriffs and police officers came out this week in opposition to a controversial legislative proposal that would allow anyone with a concealed weapons permit to openly carry their guns statewide.

Law enforcement representatives say Senate Bill 300 / House Bill 163 would restrict the ability of officers to ensure public safety and the bills fail to include enhanced training and requirements for the holstering and handling of openly carried weapons, among other concerns.

Supporters of the legislation -- sponsored by Republican father-son duo Sen. Don Gaetz of Niceville and Rep. Matt Gaetz of Fort Walton Beach -- argue it strengthens Second Amendment rights for Americans to defend themselves.

The Florida Fraternal Order of Police unanimously opposes the legislation, specifically because of a provision that would prohibit an officer from asking for someone's concealed-carry permit unless the officer had "probable cause" -- a more stringent legal standard than what is currently in law. If the officer made the request without probable cause, the officer could face a $5,000 fine and the agency they work for could be fined $100,000, under the proposed law.

"If something happens and an officer is not allowed to, at least, ask someone and inquire during the situation of a protest if they should be openly carrying, you’re tying their hands," Lisa Henning, the group's legislative liaison, told senators this week.

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January 07, 2015

Florida lawmakers make testing troubles an early priority

After a year that saw parents rise up against standardized testing, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday said they are prepared to improve the state’s assessment program.

"We have a chance to do a rewrite so we can ensure that we are not over-testing our children, and ensure that we provide a road map to the districts about how to do this,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

Lawmakers floated a number of ideas. Among them:

•Reducing the overall number of state-mandated exams.

•Eliminating repetitive tests.

•Allowing some national tests, such as the Advanced Placement exams, to stand in the place of state-mandated tests.

•Providing districts with more flexibility on how to assess students.

Lawmakers also discussed districts' readiness for the new Florida Standards Assessment, which launch this year. Several school districts have said they lack the technology needed to give the computer-based tests — and have turned to the legislature for help.

While it is unlikely lawmakers that can make any changes before the testing cycle begins in the spring, they intend to act quickly, Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Don Gaetz said.

"We don’t have a year or two to study this," said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "Any kind of clean up that we need, or simplification we need in testing and assessment, should have been addressed by now. We’re in the fourth quarter."

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