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.

February 25, 2016

Attempt to revive recess bill withdrawn from Florida Senate committee

@ByKristenMClark

Sen. Alan Hays' effort to bring back to life a proposal that would mandate elementary-school recess was short-lived today.

The Umatilla Republican withdrew an amendment he had filed last night on a sweeping re-write of an education bill (SB 1166) by Sen. Don Gaetz. Gaetz's rewrite broadens the education funding bill to now include more than a dozen policy issues.

But not recess.

Hays said he "really, really believes that our students deserve recess," but will "wait for a better day," after talking today with Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Sen. John Legg, the Trinity Republican who chairs the chamber's education policy committee.

Hays' bill mandating recess stalled before Legg's committee, when Legg refused to take it up. Legg calls it "a local issue," although passionate "recess moms" are imploring lawmakers to take action. (The measure passed the House last week, 112-2.)

Legg told the Tampa Bay Times today that he "respectfully brought up" a Senate rule that would've required Gaetz's entire bill to be re-referred back to committee, if Hays' amendment were adopted.

Legg was standing in the corner of the Appropriations Committee room for much of the committee's marathon meeting today, which began at 10 a.m. He did not appear to be in the room when SB 1166 was taken up.

With no other discussion or debate, the 19-member Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously sent Gaetz's revised version of SB 1166 to the Senate floor. It now includes several House priorities that were also moving through Senate committees: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures, youth suicide and prevention, and high school athletics proposals, among others.

One amendment that was approved on the bill, though, was a proposal by Sen. Joe Negron -- a Republican from Stuart who is set to serve as Senate president starting in November. He wants to re-name the Florida National Merit Scholar Incentive Program into the "Benacquisto Scholarship" after Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers.

Benacquisto is the Appropriations Committee's vice-chairwoman and was leading the meeting when the amendment was adopted.

SB 1166 is the second of two sweeping education bills Gaetz got through the Appropriations Committee today. More here on the first one.

Times reporter Jeffrey Solochek contributed to this report.

Senators unsuccessful in stopping progress on 'Best & Brightest'

@ByKristenMClark

The Florida Senate's budget committee sent to the chamber floor this afternoon a sweeping education measure that includes controversial bonuses for Florida's "Best and Brightest" teachers.

Several senators unsuccessfully challenged Sen. Don Gaetz's move today to re-write his bill (SB 524), which now includes the teacher bonuses, capital funding reforms for charter schools and more than a dozen other education-related policies.

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner argued Gaetz's re-write was "out of order" because it dealt with the subject of at least five other pending bills in the Senate -- topics of which, she argued, weren't "germane" to the purpose of the bill.

Originally, SB 524 dealt narrowly with public universities' performance funding.

Appropriations Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, rejected Joyner's challenge. He said Gaetz's vast amendment was valid because the proposed committee substitute of Gaetz's bill included a title change, indicating the bill dealt broadly with "education."

A few senators sought to tweak Gaetz's re-written bill with changes of their own. For instance, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores wanted to allow teachers to have the option to qualify for the "Best and Brightest" bonuses using a "nationally accredited, advanced credential" in lieu of their high school SAT/ACT scores -- an alternative for which she previously advocated.

Gaetz opposed her change, and the rest of the committee rejected it.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, filed a hand-written amendment during the meeting that sought to jettison the "Best & Brightest" plan from Gaetz's re-write.

"I think we need to delete that to make this bill much much better," Hays said. "The idea of putting incentive programs out there to entice young people to come into the teaching profession, I would back it up all the way. But don’t make it insulting to those teachers that have been in the career for decades."

The bonus program rewards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in high school. Gaetz and House sponsor Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, describe it as a "recruitment and retention tool."

But critics, including the state's largest teachers union, argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers -- there's no proven correlation between student performance and teachers' high school exam scores -- and that it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Hays' amendment was also shot down by a voice vote, which sounded close.

After all amendments were considered, there was no debate on the new version of SB 524. The 19-member committee advanced it to the Senate floor with three members voting in opposition: Hays, Joyner and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Another sweeping amendment Gaetz has proposed for a different education bill (SB 1166) had not yet been considered, as of 3:50 p.m. (More here.)

Senate Appropriations could salvage, advance major education proposals today

@ByKristenMClark

Among a slate of bills the Florida Senate's large Appropriations Committee will take up today are two relatively simple education bills (SB 524 and SB 1166) that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to transform into sweeping measures that include many of the most high-profile education policy changes lawmakers are considering this session.

Tacking on numerous proposals en masse is a way for lawmakers to salvage foundering or stalled bills as the end of session nears -- a process Gaetz called "fairly routine."

"If you have some good ideas that have received strong support in both houses, you try to create a balanced approach," Gaetz said. "The point is to look for issues that have had substantial merit and substantial support and give them an opportunity to be heard in Appropriations and heard on the floor and negotiated with the House."

Gaetz, R-Niceville, filed the 59-page, strike-all amendment for SB 524 on Wednesday, which includes such controversial issues as the "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus plan and proposed reforms for capital funding to charter schools and school districts. (More here.)

A couple senators are seeking to tweak Gaetz's amendment with late-filed changes of their own. For instance, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores wants to allow teachers to have the option to qualify for the "Best and Brightest" bonuses using a "nationally accredited, advanced credential" in lieu of their high school SAT/ACT scores -- an alternative for which she previously advocated.

Even more sweepingly, Gaetz also filed an 85-page, strike-all amendment for his 3-page education funding bill, which folds in many of the House's education priorities. His proposed revisions to SB 1166 include: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures, youth suicide and prevention, and high school athletics proposals.

On top of all that, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, wants to use the opportunity to revive hopes for mandatory elementary-school recess -- which were dashed when Pre-K-12 Education Committee Chairman Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, declined to hear the bill this session. (The measure passed the House last week, 112-2.)

If the Senate Appropriations Committee approves Hays' amendment to Gaetz's changes -- which passionate "recess moms" hope they do -- senators will be doing an end-run around Legg's authority as a committee chairman. (More here.)

Continue reading "Senate Appropriations could salvage, advance major education proposals today" »

February 19, 2016

Jack Latvala says Don Gaetz is hypocritical for attacking Miguel Diaz de la Portilla

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@ByKristenMClark

So much for peace among Republicans in the Florida Senate this session.

After Sen. Don Gaetz issued a statement last night blasting fellow Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla for killing his open-carry bill, another Republican senator today is accusing Gaetz of being a hypocrite.

"When Don Gaetz was Senate president and throughout my time serving with him, he has never hesitated to use whatever procedural options were open to stifle the will of anyone else in the Senate," Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said today.

He cited a couple of instances during Gaetz's presidency from 2012-2014 when he said he felt the Niceville Republican used his power as president to halt the progress of Latvala's own priorities.

"For him to be talking about one senator stifling the will of the Senate, he needs to make sure he has clean hands," Latvala said.

Latvala and Gaetz are not ones to mince words about each other and they have a history of showing publicly their dislike for one another. During the special session on Senate redistricting last fall, Gaetz rose for a 17-minute tirade on the Senate floor in which he called Latvala a "bully" and criticized him for being critical of Senate leadership.

Latvala retorted to Gaetz shortly after, but those wounds clearly haven't healed.

"This is a perfect example of him doing the same thing to somebody else, and I’m just tired of it," Latvala said today. "Senator Gaetz is used to having his way, and he didn’t get his way this time. It’s unfortunate for him to put out a statement about another senator like that, and I’m just sick of it."

Gaetz today declined to respond to Latvala's comments.

His controversial legislation would have allowed 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons permits in Florida to openly carry handguns.

Earlier this month, the Republican-heavy House easily passed its version -- sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach -- but Don Gaetz's companion bill stalled in the Senate in front of Diaz de la Portilla's Judiciary Committee.

The Miami Republican announced Tuesday he won't take up the bill, which prompted Don Gaetz's statement Thursday evening. Gaetz accused Diaz de la Portilla of "fearing the debate" over open carry, "stretching" his authority as a committee chairman and of "promising and then reneging" on plans to find a compromise on the legislation.

Diaz de la Portilla stands by his decision. He said Thursday he couldn't see a workable solution for something he called "such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida." He also said Gaetz was "disingenuous" to criticize him for exercising his authority as a committee chairman. (Gaetz himself is currently in charge of the education budget committee.)

Latvala also said today that he doesn't think Gaetz really had the votes to pass his open-carry bill, which Gaetz maintains he does.

The Republican majority isn't as large in the Senate, where there are 26 Republicans and 14 Democrats. Twenty-one votes are needed to pass a bill.

Latvala said he's among the senators who had reservations about open carry and "probably would've voted against it" if it came to the floor.

He said open carry isn't a constitutional issue, as the Gaetzes have proclaimed. Latvala said he sees the motive as more political and described it as something to help the National Rifle Association "gin up their numbers and to keep their members involved."

"Nobody’s trying to take anybody’s rights away from them," Latvala said.

Photo credit: Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, speaks on the Senate floor in 2014. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 18, 2016

Gaetz: Diaz de la Portilla 'stifled will of Senate' on open carry, 'promised and then reneged' on compromise

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@ByKristenMClark

State Sen. Don Gaetz said in a lengthy statement this evening that Miami Republican Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla "stretched" his authority as Judiciary Committee chairman and "stifled the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote" on Gaetz's proposal to let people openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz, a conservative Republican from Niceville, also accused Diaz de la Portilla of lying about his intentions to find a compromise on the highly controversial measure.

"I’m deeply disappointed," Gaetz said. "It is perfectly proper to vote against a bill. It reflects poorly on any chairman to fear the debate.

"The Judiciary Committee chairman promised and then reneged on a commitment to meet with me and other pro-Second Amendment legislators to try to negotiate differences in good faith," Gaetz added.

The more-moderate Diaz de la Portilla made it official Tuesday that he would not hear Gaetz's bill this session -- killing it as he has two other gun bills this year that sought to expand how and where more than 1.5 million people with concealed-weapons licenses in Florida can carry handguns.

Diaz de la Portilla said this evening that Gaetz was "disingenuous" with his criticism, because Gaetz himself is a committee chairman and former Senate president who understands the prerogative chairmen have.

"Senator Gaetz knows that committees chairs can’t possibly agenda every bill that is referred to their committee," Diaz de la Portilla said.

Gaetz acknowledged that Diaz de la Portilla is "technically within his rights as a chairman not to hear the bill."

Gaetz added: "I have faced the same question as Senator Diaz de la Portilla: Should I kill a bill that a majority of legislators want to debate, and perhaps pass, just because of my own personal preferences? In fact, I have faced that question on matters important to Senator Diaz de la Portilla and his constituents. The difference is I did not stretch my authority to stifle the will of the Senate to cast an up or down vote.

"Put simply, Senator Diaz de la Portilla used his power as a committee chairman to deny senators and the public the opportunity even to discuss the issue of open carry and vote for or against the bill," Gaetz said.

Current Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, has supported Diaz de la Portilla's decision, though. Gardiner left it to Diaz de la Portilla to decide whether the open-carry bill and other contentious gun proposals would be heard, and he has been consistent in empowering other committee chairmen with that discretion, also.

Diaz de la Portilla said he and Gaetz "spoke briefly on the floor once" about open carry "and maybe on another occasion before that." He said Gaetz did not address his frustrations with him directly.

Gaetz said he believes his open-carry bill could have passed the full Senate "with the constructive amendments recommended by The Florida Police Chiefs Association."

But that's another point of disagreement between the senators.

The police chiefs' provisions -- which included requiring openly carried weapons to be holstered -- were added to the House version, which was sponsored by Gaetz's son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach. (That bill passed the Republican-heavy House earlier this month.)

However, the Florida Sheriffs Association offered amendments of their own, which were rejected in the House and which Don Gaetz said he would have not wanted considered in the Senate.

The sheriffs' proposal would have gutted the bill. It wouldn't have allowed open carry but would have solely addressed a problem that the National Rifle Association said was its motive for seeking an open-carry law: the prosecution of people who inadvertently display concealed weapons.

Diaz de la Portilla said Thursday the sheriffs' proposal was "the only solution or compromise that I felt was workable."

"I did rack my brain trying to find a workable solution on the issue of open carry, but at the end of the day, it’s such lousy public policy and so dangerous for the state of Florida," he said. "You can’t fix something that is such terrible public policy."

Emphasizing Floridians' Second Amendment rights, Gaetz said his bill "would have allowed only those persons lawfully able to carry handguns to do so without concealment, without brandishing them, without violating private property rights and without allowing weapons in any place where they are now prohibited."

Diaz de la Portilla has said previously, though, he worried about "unintended consequences" of the legislation.

"Some things are such bad ideas that there’s no fixing them," he said Thursday. "Unfortunately, that’s the case with Senator Gaetz’s bad bill."

Photo credit: AP

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.) 

Continue reading "Florida Senate's reforms on school districts' capital spending differs on charter school aid" »

February 07, 2016

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

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@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.