February 11, 2016

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


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 10, 2016

Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July


State senators peppered education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz with questions on and off for an hour Wednesday afternoon about the Niceville Republican's plan to change how after-school and mentoring programs are funded, as the chamber started deliberating its budget plan for 2016-17.

Gaetz's proposal involves pooling together existing program funding from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice (which currently go to about a half-dozen or so designated organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys & Girls Clubs), adding more dollars to that pot and creating a $30 million competitive grant program.

Gaetz says it would make a more fair process, free of lobbying and politics, and open up the dollars to more non-profit organizations that provide aftercare services to Florida children. (More here.)

Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and several Democratic senators scrutinized the details of Gaetz's proposal during discussion on the Senate floor -- voicing skepticism through their questions that the plan could be implemented for the next budget year, which starts July 1, without affecting a funding stream that programs rely on.

They suggested a couple months wasn't enough time to set up the new state-appointed board that would vet program providers and decide which got how much money.

"I think President Gaetz is on to something that’s a good thing, because it becomes more of a fairness issue and a ranking issue, but it’s in the implementation that we have to look at this a little more closely," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said.

Gaetz countered every criticizing question with a defense.

Continue reading "Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July" »

Gov. Rick Scott solicits support for tech center grant funding



Trying to get Florida lawmakers' support for one of his more lesser-profile priorities, Republican Gov. Rick Scott rallied in the Capitol rotunda this morning to raise awareness for his call to invest $20 million in a grant program that would help students at the state's 48 post-secondary technical centers.

Flanked by students, center administrators and other supporters, Scott said: "This is part of making sure that you get the right things passed during session, that the right things are in the budget."

"You have to be here to make sure your legislators know what's important to you," Scott told the crowd, noting his proposed Technical Center Rapid Response Grant Program is "important to people who want jobs around our state."

Scott included the $20 million for the new program in his proposed budget to lawmakers. Education budget leaders in both the House and Senate have said they are open to discussing it but aren't committing to Scott's specific recommendation.

The House included $10 million toward the program in its budget plan, said Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the House's education budget committee chairman.

Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, mentioned the full $20 million in funding when he gave his initial budget presentation in late January, noting that "how that will be defined will be the subject of" future committee work in the Senate.

Both the House and Senate will discuss their full budget proposals on the chamber floors today and Thursday.

It's not common practice for Scott to lobby lawmakers directly or hold rallies to drum up support for his priorities. In the past couple months, though, he's appeared before House and Senate committees to argue for his tax-cut package, and last week, he held another Capitol rally to promote his call for $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million in business incentives.

The "rapid response" grants are one of at least a handful of priorities that lawmakers either have rejected, questioned or are offering counter proposals for during the 2016 session. Among those topics: the proposed tax cuts, the business incentives for Enterprise Florida, the Seminole gaming compact, and his funding plan to increase to K-12 education funding using mostly local property tax revenue. 

In line with his ongoing goal to get Florida students employed, Scott's budget proposal called for the Department of Education to set up the "rapid response" grants to help expand or develop post-secondary programs "in high-demand areas." The state's tech centers served more than 230,000 students in 2014-15.

"I've never met anybody in the state who's interested in going on unemployment. They all want jobs," Scott said. "It's our job to create an environment where they can get the best jobs possible."


House budget panel endorses limits on school construction spending


With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

More here.

February 09, 2016

Open-enrollment bill goes to Florida House floor with amendments

House education committee 0209


A bill that would allow open enrollment in Florida public schools is headed to the House floor, after the House Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon made two significant changes.

HB 669 -- from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor -- would allow parents to request classroom transfers for their kids or put them in any school in the state that has capacity.

After stalling last year, the measure moved swiftly through three committees since passing its first panel three weeks ago, and it's one of several bills being debated in both the House and Senate this session that call for open enrollment. The concept is supported by "school choice" advocates and the charter school industry -- which gave Florida lawmakers' campaign and political committees at least $182,500 between July and early January, before the 2016 session started.

After more than an hour of debate Tuesday, Sprowls' bill passed the House Education Committee on a 13-5 vote, with Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda joining Republicans in support.

Republicans said the bill promotes choice and the freedom for all students to go to a quality school that suits their needs. But Democrats said key questions still remain unanswered, such as how it would affect school funding across district lines and whether it would hurt neighborhood schools or have other unintended consequences.

The most controversial change adopted by the committee had critics worrying that developers in wealthy areas would be able to designate which students could attend schools built in blossoming communities. The amendment by Sprowls would give primary enrollment preference based on land donations "or funding agreements" in place with school districts before July 2016.

"We’re cherry-picking and saying only in those wealthy communities, where a developer is going to give the land, are we protecting that right to neighborhood schools," Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said.

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, called it "bad public policy" because the proposal was so broad, and he was among those who said it would enable developers to "buy a seat" in preferred schools.

Supporters on the education committee said such fears were "unfounded" because the bill would only affect existing agreements in place by this summer, not future ones.

"A lot of what is being discussed here is current practice and it can happen today," Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said. "This is simply just memorializing an existing development and mitigation tool that exists."

Sprowls' amendment was added on a voice vote, which sounded close.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also added an unrelated provision that would require middle- and high school teachers to provide a class syllabus to parents and highlight "any material containing mature or adult content" that they intend to teach.

Teachers would have sole discretion to decide what is potentially controversial material, and parents would be given the opportunity to object, under the provision brought forth by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

Adkins and Reps. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, and Michael Bileca, R-Miami, spoke vaguely of "pornographic" and "sexually explicit" material that students have been suggested or required to read in some Florida public schools.

"The content that some of our kids are exposed to under the responsibility of the school district … would shock a lot of members on this committee," Bileca said. He told the Herald/Times after the meeting that the questionable material he'd seen was brought to him by concerned Collier County parents.

Adkins' amendment was also added on a voice vote, which sounded unanimous.

Also Tuesday, the Education Committee sent three other high-profile bills to the House floor for consideration. They would:

-- propose to voters a constitutional amendment creating a statewide authorizer that could authorize, operate and control Florida's 650 charter schools;

-- require elementary schools to offer daily recess;

-- and target the Florida School Boards Association and eliminate its ability to sue the state using taxpayer dollars.

Both the charter school authorizer measure and the FSBA bill are moving through Senate committees also. The recess bill hasn't been heard at all in the Senate.

Photo credit: Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, presents HB 669 to the House Education Committee on Feb. 9, 2016. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Computer coding proposal keeps moving through Florida Legislature


Plans to require public high schools to provide computer-coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language credits continue to easily advance through the Florida Legislature.

The Senate version -- led by former Yahoo executive and current state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- is ready for consideration on the chamber's floor, and the House version passed its second of three committees on Tuesday.

The bill by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, was amended by the House education budget committee to include a $79,000-paid position at the Department of Education to "fund the bill."

Her version includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in post-secondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. A staff analysis of the bill recommended appropriating funds for a "program specialist" to support that directive.

Ring's version includes no such appropriation, as his bill is more narrowly tailored.

He's previously said the proposal would impose no costs, despite concerns raised by other lawmakers that it would require schools to hire teachers with specialty expertise, as well as provide enough computers to meet students' demand when many schools are already strapped for technology resources.

The bill's supporters include tech businesses, the Florida PTA, the Miami-Dade County Council of PTA/PTSA and Charter Schools USA.

Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to recognize students' computer-coding credits toward foreign language requirements.

Ring's version was changed last week to take effect in the 2018-19 school year and to include a provision requiring students and parents to sign a statement "acknowledging and accepting that taking a computer coding course as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements."

Adkins' bill requires districts to provide an advisory to students and parents, but there's no requirement of a signed statement. Her bill also requires Florida Virtual School to offer coding courses and for districts to give students access to the virtual school if local schools can't provide the course.

Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee


The House Appropriations Committee will take up legislation this afternoon that could significantly change how public schools use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

The topic of school districts' construction spending has been a flash-point between education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the state's superintendents' association during the past couple of weeks.

A proposed committee substitute version of HB 873 brings to fruition Fresen's promise to rein in what he and other House leaders have argued is a “disturbing pattern” of districts' “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed cap on how much in state dollars they can spend on capital projects. About 30 percent of projects statewide during the last 10 years or so went over the cap, according to Fresen.

The substitute bill goes even farther, too, by addressing charter schools' capital needs and forcing districts to assist with funding them in addition to traditional schools.

Continue reading "Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee" »

February 08, 2016

Ballards donate building for FSU's new Jim Moran Entrepreneurship School


Brian and Kathryn Ballard have donated a $1.1 million building in downtown Tallahassee to Florida State University for the purpose of housing the new Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship.

The university announced the Ballards' donation today -- two months after announcing the new school, which is being funded by an historic $100 million gift from Jan Moran and The Jim Moran Foundation.

Kathryn Ballard is a member of the FSU Board of Trustees and an FSU alumna, while Brian Ballard is CEO of Ballard Partners, a high-profile lobbying firm in Tallahassee.

The building that the couple donated is a three-story, 19,000-square-foot building on Monroe Street just north of the Florida Capitol.

"We are so excited and proud to support the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship,” Kathryn Ballard said in a statement. “This will be a special place for FSU students, faculty and alumni for generations to come.”

FSU President Jim Thrasher said the Ballards' gift "will enable us to quickly follow through on making the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship a reality."

FSU said the building will undergo renovations and be ready for move-in by summer 2017. It will house offices for the school's staff and its founding director, Susan Fiorito. The school's faculty will maintain offices in their current colleges and departments on FSU's main campus.

The school is scheduled to open in August 2018.

South Florida auto dealer Rick Case asked Gov. Rick Scott to increase funding to Boys & Girls Clubs


A few months before lawmakers began debating how best to fund after-school programs next year, one prominent South Florida businessman put a bug in Republican Gov. Rick Scott's ear to increase state funding for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs.

In an email to Scott's office in early October -- obtained by the Herald/Times through a public records request -- auto dealer Rick Case asked Scott to recommend $20 million total next year for the state Boys & Girls Clubs, with $10 million each from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice.

"I do have some community business that I need your help with leading into the 2016 Legislative Session in January," Case led his email, after noting how he was "looking forward" to seeing Scott at Case's daughter's upcoming wedding. 

Case pointed out that the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs took a 50 percent cut in its state funding this year, which meant the Broward County Boys & Girls Club -- with which Case said he is "deeply involved" -- also lost almost half of its state aid received by way of the alliance.

"We are working hard here in Broward to make up that shortfall, but I really need you (sic) help to make our kids a priority in your budget submission this year," Case wrote.

He added: "You have to agree with me that there are few organizations that have an ROI (return on investment) like Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs in the State of Florida. Placing us in your budget will send a resounding signal for our efforts in every club working in their respective counties across the state."

It doesn't appear the plea had an effect on Scott, who recommended less funding for the alliance this year.

Scott's budget proposal kept education funding for the Florida Alliance of Boys & Girls Clubs flat at $2.5 million for next year and recommended $600,000 in juvenile justice funding (down from $3 million this year).

Designated funding for after-school and mentoring programs are a point of contention in the Legislature's budget proposals for 2016-17.

The Senate wants to do away with line-item funding and replace it with a competitive grant program that more non-profit program providers can access. Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said that deciding which aftercare programs are funded by individual line items each year is “so much a function of lobbying" that he wanted a more fair process. More here.

February 05, 2016

Attention, parents: Sample score reports unveiled for 2016 statewide assessments



State education officials are letting teachers and parents know what the new, redesigned score reports will look like for this year's Florida Standards Assessments, which students will take this spring.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart first discussed the new score reports with the State Board of Education in early January, and her department rolled them out officially Friday afternoon so parents will know what to expect when they get their children's scores.

There's also a new website to help teachers, parents and students understand the information presented on the score reports.

“Our goal is to ensure Floridians have access to an education system that prepares all students for future success," Stewart said in a statement. "The standardized statewide assessments and the corresponding score reports are critical to achieving that goal because they provide students, parents and educators insight into what students have learned."

"By knowing how well students grasped the information they are expected to know in each grade level, these individuals can work together to make adjustments that will lead to greater success in the future," Stewart said.

Score reports for all statewide standardized assessments are distributed to parents and students through their school districts.

The new design was prompted by lengthy discussions among state board members and Stewart over terminology -- such as "satisfactory" or "proficient" -- and concerns that words are used interchangeably instead of what they actually mean in relation to students' scores.

The Education Department highlighted these new features of the report:

-- Color-coded levels (1-5), so it is apparent which level the student achieved at first glance;

-- clear explanation of what each level means, including the difference between “satisfactory” and “proficient,” with additional detail about the level that the student achieved;

-- comparison of the student’s performance to other students in their school, district and the state;

-- and, references to specific DOE websites that offer resources parents and students can use to increase preparation for the next grade/course. 

Image credit: Florida Department of Education