January 18, 2017

Supreme Court rejects teachers' union attempt to challenge voucher program

Voucher rally 2016@MaryEllenKlas

Florida's teachers union struck out Wednesday in its latest effort to dismantle Florida's tax credit scholarship program as the Florida Supreme Court rejectedits appeal for legal standing to challenge the voucher-like program that finances students from low-performing schools to attend private schools.

The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs, including the NAACP, allege the scholarships are unconstitutional because the program diverts money that would otherwise go to the state’s accounts that fund public K-12 education. They also argue that the scholarship program pulls poor students out of the public school system in favor of private schools, diminishing funds to nearly 2.8 million children served by public schools.

The groups had previously been told by both the trial court and appeals court that it did not have legal standing to challenge the 15-year-old program adopted by the Legislature and Wednesday's rejection ends is their final appeal. Florida businesses earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits by donating to designated organizations -- primarily "Step Up for Students" -- which fund and distribute the scholarships. 

The decision is a victory for supporters of the scholarship program and comes  one year after the rally they held on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the lawsuit. Thousands of supporters gathered at the rally led by Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader.

The event was organized by the "Save Our Scholarships Coalition" and other school-choice groups to emphasize support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The groups have waged an expensive year-long television and social media marketing campaign that urged the teachers' union to "drop the suit."

Attorneys representing the state and the parents of scholarship recipients argued the union had no standing to sue because no scholarship money actually enters or leaves the state treasury. The scholarships are funded directly through private donations from businesses, which can then earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state for their contributions.

In 2015, Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III agreed with that explanation and rejected the teachers' lawsuit. The First District Court of Appeal agreed last year.

Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed the union could not challenge the law. Justice R. Fred Lewis wanted to allow them to have oral arguments. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and newly-appointed Justice Alan Lawson did not vote.

The program funds scholarships for more than 78,000 children to go to private, often religious, schools. Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students facilitates almost all of the money; $447 million was doled out this school year.

Proponents of the scholarship argue that if the teachers' union is successful in its lawsuit then the students would be "evicted" from private school because their families wouldn't be able to afford it anymore.

More than a quarter of the scholarship recipients -- almost 20,900 -- live in Miami-Dade County, and almost 70 percent of them are black or Hispanic.

The teachers union has been at war with the GOP-led Legislature for nearly two decades over the diversion of state funds into the voucher-like programs. In some of his first remarks as the new Florida House speaker last year, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, accused the teachers union of being "downright evil" for its legal challenge to the tax credit scholarship program.

 

On Wednesday, Corcoran called the decision “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.”

Miami Herald staff reporter Kristen Clark contributed to this report. 

Photo: 2016 rally at the Florida Capitol in support of school voucher programs. By Steve Cannon, AP

 

January 04, 2017

Two Florida Board of Education seats vacant as next meeting approaches

via @TB_Times' @JeffSolochek

The seven-person Florida Board of Education heads toward its Jan. 17 meeting with two open seats and no announced time line from the Governor's Office to fill them.

Board member John Padget, a Keys businessman and onetime Monroe superintendent, was forced to step down in December after having served two full terms. He cannot be reappointed.

Board member Michael Olenick, a former Department of Education general counsel, could be considered for another stint on the board. He spent only two years in the seat, filling the unexpired term of Miami-Dade physician Ada Armas, who resigned after two years.

"Anyone is welcome to apply and can find more information at http://www.flgov.com/appointments/," Governor's Office spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said via email.

So far, Schenone wrote, six people have submitted applications for the positions. They include two former Republican candidates for public office and a college administrator.

December 17, 2016

Florida lawmakers want to maximize classroom learning

@ByKristenMClark

How much classroom time Florida students spend actually learning will be a major focus for key state lawmakers in charge of dolling out more than $23 billion for pre-K-12 education next year, and some of those overhauls could be further reductions to mandatory testing as well as tweaks to the school-year calendar.

The specifics are yet to be proposed and debated, but Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. David Simmons, the new chairmen of the pre-K-12 budget committees in their respective chambers, are both approaching their new responsibility with broad ambitions. They also share a unified goal to direct more dollars and resources to classrooms, even if it means upending the status quo.

“We’re going to look at and review and have oversight on every dollar in that budget. I think it’s our responsibility to ask the questions,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican in his third term who has had — and will continue to have — major influence in advancing school choice policies. “We want to take a deep dive and make sure that we’re getting ever penny that we can to that classroom across the board, whether it’s a traditional public school, a magnet, a charter.”

Diaz and Simmons both this week suggested revisions to the school-year calendar could be on the table in 2017, such as potentially extending the school-day for students in failing schools and adjusting when standardized tests are administered during the year.

More here.

December 08, 2016

FSU President John Thrasher still no fan of guns on campus

John-thrasherfrom @LloydDunk of the News Service of Florida:

In his annual "state of the university" address on Wednesday, Florida State University President John Thrasher reiterated his strong opposition to allowing guns on university and college campuses.

As a member of the Florida Senate, Thrasher helped kill a bill in 2011 that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-weapons licenses to bring their firearms to Florida's university and state-college campuses.

"I opposed it. I killed it. I have worked against it since then," Thrasher told the FSU faculty. "And you have my promise that I will work against it this year also."

The so-called "campus carry" bill, which in the past has been approved by the House, has already re-emerged as an issue for the 2017 legislative session. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, filed a new version of the bill (HB 6005) on Wednesday.

The issue also may have more support in 2017 in the Senate, where newly elected Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a major supporter, has been named chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That committee is where the proposal, strongly backed by Second Amendment groups, died during the 2016 session.

Thrasher, a former House speaker and Senate Rules Committee chairman, said he continues to agree with other university and college leaders, campus law enforcement officials and faculty members "that having more guns on campus does not make our campus safer."

Continue reading "FSU President John Thrasher still no fan of guns on campus" »

December 02, 2016

Latvala bristles at freshman senator's attempt to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

via @JeffSolochek

Without mentioning any names, or even the issue at hand, Florida Sen. Jack Latvala took a clear swipe Thursday at a newly minted Senate colleague who filed legislation to undo a university tuition measure that Latvala worked hard to broker two years ago.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a bill Wednesday to void a law granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students who graduate from Florida high schools. Latvala initially had little to say about the proposal, which he hadn't yet read.

MORE: "In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger"

A day later, in a room filled with school board members from across the state, Latvala let loose. He made his comments in response to the question of what might be his biggest non-financial challenge in the 2017 session.

That challenge, Latvala said, will be coming to grips with the largest freshman group of senators in memory — 20 in all, 17 of whom came from the Florida House with their own set of protocols and behaviors that differ from the more collegial Senate.

He paused, then continued to speak about "one of" the House transplants who, just a few days into the term decided to file a bill that would repeal all the hard work a longstanding senator — the Appropriations Committee chairman, no less — spent significant effort moving through the Legislature.

Latvala is the Appropriations chair.

"It gets your back up," he said. "The final chapter hasn't been played on that."

FSBA executive director Andrea Messina, who moderated the panel, playfully asked, "It wasn't Sen. (Dana) Young, was it?"

A grinning Young sat three seats away from Latvala, who responded quickly, "She wouldn't dare."

Sen. David Simmons, another Senate long-timer at the table, said he spent eight years in the House before coming to the upper chamber. The operating models of each differs greatly, he said, and it will take time for all to acclimate to one another.

But one thing is certain, Simmons said: Newcomers quickly learn that "the toe or foot you step on is attached to another part of the anatomy you might need to kiss" later on to get what you want.

The room burst into laughter. Steube was not present.

November 30, 2016

In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger

Steube 2014  - keeler

via @clairemcneill

Heralded as a bipartisan victory when it passed, a Florida law granting in-state college tuition rates to undocumented students could now be in danger.

A bill filed Wednesday by conservative Florida Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, seeks to erase that 2014 provision. Colleges no longer would have to waive out-of-state fees for undocumented students who attend Florida high schools.

"It is certainly a big issue in my district among my constituents, who were frustrated and upset that the state would allow undocumented illegal immigrants to receive taxpayer-supported in-state tuition," he said. "So I think it's important to file the bill and have a discussion on it."

Steube said he knocked on thousands of doors in his primary campaign. Unfailingly, voters asked about two things: the Second Amendment, and illegal immigration. He remembers one working-class man in particular, disappointed that after working so hard to put his family through college, the state would give undocumented immigrants a tuition break.

"I just don't think it's good public policy for the state," Steube said. "And with the change in leadership and the change in both of the chambers, I think it's a policy that is worth revisiting."

More than a decade of contention preceded the 2014 tuition bill. When it finally passed in a high-profile 26-13 vote in the Senate, Republican Gov. Rick Scott deemed it "a historic day."

"Just think," Scott said then. "Children that grew up in our state will now get the same tuition as their peers."

The vote felt like victory for Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who sponsored the bill.

"The eyes of America are on us," he said. "I think we're setting an example. I think we're doing the right thing."

On Wednesday, Latvala had little to say about the new Senate Bill 82.

"First I've heard about it," he said. "I'm out of state, so I really don't want to talk about it until I've had a chance to take a look."

Before passing in spring 2014 with significant Republican support, the tuition proposal faced strong opposition within the party.

Then-Senate President Don Gaetz rebuked the bill in an email to his constituents, incensed that it would aid even those from countries rife with "anti-American violence." And incoming Senate president Joe Negron, R-Stuart, then chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said his committee wouldn't hear the bill, deflating its potential of becoming law.

Latvala crafted a strategy in response, adding the language to several other bills going before the panel to keep the effort alive. Student activists also kept the heat on Senate leaders, staging news conferences and pressing for meetings. Scott told reporters he considered the bill a priority.

On Wednesday, his office said it was taking a look at the new proposal.

Steube, who was elected to the Senate in 2016 after six years in the House, said he hasn't talked to Negron or Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran about the legislation yet. But knowing of their previous opposition gave him hope.

Negron and Corcoran have not returned calls for comment.

The benefits of the bill are already being felt by young adults who were brought to the U.S. through no fault of their own, said Rep. Jeanette Nuñez, R-Miami, who sponsored the 2014 bill in the House. 

“This really isn’t an immigration bill, this is access to higher education,” she said. “I for one am focused on empowering families and being able to provide opportunities for students.”

Despite the Senate president’s likely support, she said she’s not too concerned about Steube’s bill just yet. She vowed to fight it tooth and nail.

“Clearly, in my mind, he’s still in campaign mode,” she said. “There’s a lot of football to be played, and we’re in the preseason at this point. Hopefully at the end of the day we’ll prevail.”

Photo credit: State Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, in 2014 when he was in the Florida House. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

New House education chairman who opposed school recess plan 'will take a look' at it in 2017

Bileca_flhouse@ByKristenMClark

After being one of only two Florida House members to oppose it last session, Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca said he's open to considering a renewed effort to mandate recess time at Florida's public elementary schools.

But he indicated the proposal could still face some potentially tough scrutiny in 2017.

"I will take a look at it," Bileca told the Herald/Times. "The areas I had difficulty with were not changed (last session), so we'll need to see what's changed."

Although he's only one vote in the 120-member House, Bileca's opinion matters greatly because, as chairman of the Education Committee for the upcoming term, he has the power to influence the outcome of a wide range of education policy matters -- including this popular, parent-driven proposal.

Among Bileca's powers as chairman is deciding which bills are taken up by his committee. Failing to get a hearing is a frequent way bills die in session -- and it's how the recess measure stalled last spring in the Senate.

MORE: "Florida will again consider mandatory recess"

In filing a bill on Tuesday, Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, got the ball rolling to revive the Legislature's recess debate for next session. Rep. Rene Plasencia, the Orlando Republican who advocated for the issue last spring, is drafting the House companion.

"I know one of the things for me last year that I didn't like was it was tied to discipline," Bileca said, referencing a provision in last session's bill that read: "Free-play recess may not be withheld for academic or punititive reasons."

Bileca said he "expected modifications" in the proposal before it was brought to the House floor for a final vote but the bill was never altered.

Bileca and now-House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, were the only "no" votes when the measure passed the House, 112-2, in February. Corcoran's office did not respond to emails seeking comment this week about whether he would support a school recess proposal in the upcoming session.

While Plasencia's bill is still being drafted, the version Flores filed omits the line that concerned Bileca. It also doesn't include language affording recess time to sixth-graders who are enrolled at schools with at least one other elementary school grade, as last session's bill did.

In speaking with the Herald/Times, Bileca indicated the recess proposal could face a high bar as far as his support is concerned.

He noted that Florida already mandates physical education time, "a requirement that a lot of other states don't have." And he said: "My big focus for next session is going to be: Where are there areas we've over-regulated from the state level?"

One of the reasons the recess measure died last session in the Senate was because that chamber's education policy chairman at the time firmly believed it was a local issue that didn't "merit a Tallahassee solution."

Photo credit: State Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, during the 2015 session. myfloridahouse.gov

November 29, 2016

Mandatory school recess proposal coming back for 2017 session

RecessTwo0320 Run MSH

@ByKristenMClark

A popular, parent-backed proposal to require daily recess at all of Florida’s public elementary schools will be back before the Florida Legislature next spring.

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, filed a bill on Tuesday that mirrors one that died in the spring — despite fervent support — when one key senator from Pasco County refused to hear it in committee.

The measure, SB 78 for the 2017 session, mandates local school boards offer 20 minutes per day of “supervised, safe and unstructured free-play recess” for students in kindergarten through fifth grade.

Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia, who led the effort last year, will again champion it in the House. He said he’s in the process of drafting his bill for 2017 and plans to file it soon.

Last session’s proposal was initiated by passionate parents from all across Florida — primarily self-described “recess moms” in Tampa and Orlando, as well as Miami-Dade — who pleaded and lobbied for their lawmakers’ support in the 2016 session.

Read more here.

Photo credit: Marsha Halper / Miami Herald

*This post has been updated.

November 22, 2016

New Florida House speaker calls teacher's union 'evil' for challenging scholarship program

Cocoran_Swearing_In

@ByKristenMClark

In some of his first remarks as the new Florida House speaker, Rep. Richard Corcoran lashed out at the state's largest teachers union on Tuesday, calling the organization "downright evil" for continuing to challenge a Legislature-approved tax credit scholarship program in court.

Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican and a staunch supporter of school choice, declared that the Florida Education Association is "fixated on halting innovation and competition" -- citing the ongoing fight over the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program as an example.

The program helps low-income, mostly minority children afford to attend private schools, and the union has been fighting it in Florida's courts for almost a couple years, arguing it's a "voucher" program that diverts would-be tax money from traditional public education.

"They [the union] are attempting to destroy the lives of almost 100,000 children, mostly minority, and all of them poor. This flies in the face of research. It defies common sense.  It is downright evil," Corcoran said in a speech after accepting the speakership.

He urged House Democrats to challenge their "status quo" of the teachers union. "Tell the teachers union they're wrong. Tell them to stop the suit," Corcoran said.

In later remarks to reporters, Corcoran doubled-down, elaborating that the union's actions were not only "evil" but also "disgusting" and "repugnant."

He also referred to the teachers union as "crazy people" and said they have a false, "crazy a-- notion" about what is and isn't a fair law.

Continue reading "New Florida House speaker calls teacher's union 'evil' for challenging scholarship program" »

Eduardo Padron gets high honor from Obama

NP-Padron-MedalOfFreedom-112216-108FilmFest05 NEW PPP

@jamesmartinrose

President Barack Obama on Tuesday awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Miami Dade College President Eduardo Padron and other luminaries from education, sports, entertainment, architecture and culture.

Obama hung the medals around each recipients neck in the ornate East Room of the White House with long gold-embroidered curtains, a giant chandelier and oil portraits of former first ladies.

Recounting Padron's childhood journey from Cuba, Obama said his career as an educator has helped countless young people follow in his footsteps of arriving an immigrant and realizing the American Dream.

"Eduardo made his choice to create more stories just like his," Obama said. "Dr. Padron has built a dream factory for one of nation's most diverse student bodies."

Among other recipients were singer Diana Ross, basketball legends Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, actors Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Robert De Niro, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

Jordan received the loudest applause, while Los Angeles Dodgers radio announcer Vin Scully got the most sustained ovation.

Joining Obama and the recipients for the ceremony were Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, United States Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and other dignitaries.

Photo credit: Pedro Portal, El Nuevo Herald