April 17, 2017

Major education policy will be decided in conference negotiations. Will it be transparent?

Richard Corcoran Jose Oliva@ByKristenMClark

Florida lawmakers thisweek set into motion a budget process that will result in several highly consequential policy reforms affecting public education to become law this year in one form or another.

But if years of precedent are any indication, what exactly those final laws might be will now be determined through deal-making and negotiations that will take place largely in private, behind closed doors and out of the public eye.

The policy ideas — each tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding — range from reforming oversight and student financial aid for the state’s public colleges and universities to financially enticing privately run public charter schools to compete with failing K-12 neighborhood schools.

MORE: “House fights over $200 million incentive for charter schools, but bill passes”

Citing the fact that such policies are linked to the annual budget lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass, both chambers of the Legislature made a pivotal choice on Thursday to send these substantive education bills to a conference committee. That panel of House and Senate members will be tasked with hashing out a compromise on both the policy and the funding.

Conference is a common annual process for the budget, but lawmakers in recent years have shied away, in most cases, from using it as a vehicle to pass drastic policy reforms that are otherwise amended, debated and voted on on the House and Senate floors.

By comparison to the day-to-day legislative process, conference committee proceedings typically are not transparent and are more unabashedly a display of a preordained outcome.

Leaders in the Republican-led House and Senate reject that conference committee decisions haven’t been open, but at the same time, they’ve also pledged to make the meetings more transparent and accessible to the public this year.

“We’ll have public comments in the conference committee meetings if people want to talk,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is now House speaker, talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, on the House floor during the 2016 session. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 14, 2017

House Republicans, Democrats divided over $200M 'schools of hope' proposal

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@ByKristenMClark

How best to help 77,000 children at perpetually failing K-12 public schools sharply divided the Florida House on Thursday, as the chamber’s Republican majority pushed through a controversial $200 million spending plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida that would offer an alternative to — and potentially supplant the role of — struggling neighborhood schools.

The “schools of hope” proposal (HB 5105) sparked more than three hours of floor debate, mostly by Democrats — the longest of the 2017 session so far. The final vote was 77-40, with Democrats unanimously opposed over concerns the bill would set up a “segregated,” unfair system that would further disadvantage failing schools.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

“Are we returning to the days of separate but not equal in 2017? Over-funding charter schools and underfunding public schools is the same thing,” said Rep. Patrick Henry, a black Democrat from Daytona Beach. He called the bill “another nail in the coffin of public education.”

Republican supporters of the measure, meanwhile, touted “schools of hope” as a way to help break the cycle of generational poverty in communities that are frequently home to black and Hispanic populations, because they said these specialized charter operators would use innovative techniques that have been proven to work in other states, like New York or Washington, D.C.

Republicans also repeatedly dismissed their Democratic critics as pawns of teachers unions and cast them as implicit supporters of allowing failing schools to remain that way.

Full story here.

 

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 13, 2017

Consider it 'education day' in the Florida House

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@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House will pass out its budget proposal today for 2017-18, but it might as well be "education day" in the chamber, too.

Today is also when the chamber's Republican majority will -- barring any earth-shattering surprise -- pass out its most-desired and drastic reforms for education policy this year. And unlike last year, they're all tied to the budget.

Those include:

-- the $200 million "schools of hope" plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida to serve students who currently attend failing traditional schools;

-- the $214 million expansion of the "Best & Brightest" teachers bonuses, which changes the criteria to qualify and extends the bonuses to principals, too;

-- and changing the formula for how local and state capital dollars for school construction and maintenance will be disbursed among traditional and charter schools, giving charter schools a cut of the local dollars they don't currently get.

Democrats took a caucus position to oppose the "schools of hope" bill, and you can expect many will also vote against the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the capital outlay funding changes, too. Republicans hold a 79-41 majority, so they don't need Democratic support to push through their priorities.

The Senate has its own ideas on each of these measures, of course, so the final two weeks of session will be ripe with behind-closed-doors negotiating and backroom dealing.

The Senate is conceptually on board with the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the premise behind "schools of hope," but leaders in that chamber have their own ideas on how those policies could be accomplished.

As well, senators on Wednesday passed their own proposal for changing capital outlay funding -- removing a main component of their bill (SB 376) so that sharing local tax dollars with charters wouldn't actually be required. (It currently is optional anyway.) The bill also includes reforms to restrict charter schools from using capital funding for "personal financial enrichment," something the Senate first sought last year.

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has previously said a mandate on school districts to share their local dollars couldn't be imposed without also affording districts the ability to collect more tax revenue locally, because districts carry a lot of debt service that has to be paid regardless. But raising the millage cap for districts makes some lawmakers wary, because it could be seen as a tax increase even though the decision to actually raise the tax would be approved locally.

Simmons told the Herald/Times Wednesday that taking out the mandate from the Senate bill resolves that conflict and positions the Senate to negotiate with the House in conference committee. The House proposal (HB 5103), meanwhile, calls for a more complicated formula that requires state and local money to be divided among charter and traditional schools, while accounting off the top for the districts' debt service.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

Senate has different ideas for $200M 'schools of hope' funding

Simmons David

@ByKristenMClark

The senator in charge of negotiating education spending for next year's budget said late Wednesday the Senate is willing to consider the House's $200 million plan to help students in perpetually failing public schools -- but not necessarily in the manner the House proposes.

A session priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, and education policy chairman Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the House's "schools of hope" plan (HB 5105) was fast-tracked through two committees since it was unveiled late last month, and it's poised to pass the Republican-led House on Thursday afternoon -- likely with unanimous Democratic opposition.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

But Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told the Herald/Times that rather than adopting the explicit plan for what the House calls "schools of hope," he's more interested in focusing on the general premise of helping students in struggling schools break the cycle of generational poverty.

And he said that doesn't necessarily have to come through incentivizing high-performing, specialized charter schools to set up shop in Florida in neighborhoods with failing schools, as HB 5105 calls for.

"They're looking at this from a view of what we call 'wraparound services' or 'communities in schools,' " Simmons said of the House plan. "I know traditional public schools provide a lot of these services, and we're doing that already; we're finding that it works."

"If we can meld the concept of doing 'communities in schools' with charter schools, with traditional public schools with mentoring programs, then we'll not be very far apart at all," said Simmons, the Senate's Pre-K-12 education budget chairman.

He called the $200 million allocation the House wants a "great idea," but he said the funding doesn't have to explicitly go to establishing new "schools of hope" that could supplant traditional neighborhood schools.

Continue reading "Senate has different ideas for $200M 'schools of hope' funding" »

April 12, 2017

Andrew Gillum: House Republicans 'have a credibility problem'

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@ByKristenMClark

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — a Democrat running for governor next year — is accusing Republicans in the state House of having “a credibility problem.”

Speaking at a press conference today at the Florida Capitol about House Republicans' "schools of hope" legislation, Gillum said Republicans contradict themselves with their legislative priorities.

RELATED: " 'Schools of hope' are not the answer, Democrats say" (w/ video) 

Gillum said that, for instance, while Republicans say they want to help students in failing schools by bringing in charter-operated "schools of hope," they’ve also proposed this session little to help those same communities, which are often neighborhoods with low-income families who are predominantly black or Hispanic.

Gillum noted that Republicans have proposed limitations on government welfare programs, such as food stamps, and they also have not prioritized early childhood education spending or investing in health care programs that help low-income families afford medical services.

"The Republican House, right now, is trying to take $200 million and put into the hands of their friends who are well-healed and well-connected," Gillum said referencing the "schools of hope" plan. "They want us to trust them on this issue — when by and by, and time and time again, they have turned the other direction when it comes to meeting the needs of the most indigent in this state."

Photo credit: Courtesy of CateComm

Broward Democrat: 'We’re creating a segregated system' with 'schools of hope' (VIDEO)

@ByKristenMClark

Florida Democrats aren’t easing up on their criticism of House Republicans’ “schools of hope” plan to spend $200 million on attracting new charter schools to Florida that would serve students who currently attend perpetually failing traditional schools.

Democrats say the Republican proposal short-changes struggling neighborhood schools, which have tried to improve but are hamstrung by limitations — imposed by the Legislature — that charter schools don’t face.

“We’re creating a segregated system that will not fix the issue but will create deeper issues — pitting charter schools against our traditional public school system,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed public schools.

A few hours before the “schools of hope” legislation would be taken up on the House floor later Wednesday, Jones — joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — convened a press conference to reiterate Democrats’ concerns with HB 5105.

Full story here.

April 11, 2017

Nelson calls for end on attacks to climate science

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via @jenstaletovich

Three years after he held a field hearing in Miami Beach to draw attention to a region at ground zero for climate change, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson convened a second hearing in West Palm Beach on Monday with a new target: the Trump administration’s attack on climate science.

Held just across the Intracoastal Waterway from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s vulnerable island retreat, the hearing highlighted worsening conditions — and the need to free science from politics.

“There are people trying to muzzle scientists. I’ve seen it in Washington. I’ve seen it here in the state of Florida,” said Nelson, a Democrat and the state’s former insurance commissioner.

Southeast Florida is often considered a model for planning for climate change as it grapples with sea rise that has increased five to eight inches over the last 40 years. Four counties, Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach, formed a compact eight years ago, vowing to work together to make the region more resilient for what could be a nearly three-foot rise by 2060.

But progress has been slow, in part because South Florida has often been at odds with a Republican-led state and the administration of Gov. Rick Scott, who reportedly banned the term climate change.

Now comes the Trump administration. In recent weeks, Nelson said he has met with supervisors in federal agencies who say the administration has issued the same ban. Worse, he said, the administration has proposed scaling back agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Environmental Protection Agency, that provide critical research and enforce regulations that deal with climate-related problems.

More here.

Photo credit: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

April 10, 2017

Parents ask Supreme Court to review 'opt-out' testing case

From the News Service of Florida:

Several parents who oppose standardized-testing requirements in public schools are taking their battle to the Florida Supreme Court.

The parents last week filed a notice that is a first step in asking the Supreme Court to overturn a decision by the 1st District Court of Appeal in a case related to what is known as the "opt out" movement.

Parents who brought the case against the Department of Education and several school boards told their third-grade students to put their names on a standardized test, then refuse to answer questions. When the students were barred from moving to fourth grade under state law, the parents sued, saying they wanted their children to be evaluated using a portfolio allowed in the case of "good cause exemptions."

A three-judge panel of the appeals court on March 7 ruled that Leon County Circuit Judge Karen Gievers erred on procedural grounds in allowing the case to go forward and also disagreed with portions of her opinion that could have allowed some students to avoid answering questions on state exams. The appeals court ruled, in part, that the state has an interest in preventing social promotion, the reason given for the testing requirement.

The parents' notice of appeal to the Supreme Court, as is common, did not provide detailed arguments.

April 07, 2017

DeVos: I've touched base with Jeb Bush 'only very casually'

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via @KyraGurney

President Donald Trump’s education secretary spent two days in Miami this week, her first full trip with stops at a variety of schools and colleges since taking office.

Betsy DeVos was a controversial pick because of her advocacy for charter schools and lack of public education experience (she famously raised eyebrows during her Senate confirmation hearing for suggesting guns might be appropriate in remote schools to defend against grizzly bears). But her Friday morning visit to Royal Palm Elementary, a traditional public school in Westwood Lakes, went off without a hitch.

Accompanied by Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who had invited the secretary to Miami, DeVos visited classrooms and read a Dr. Seuss book to a group of kindergarteners. Then she stopped by Miami Dade College and dropped in on a class for small business owners. She also sat for a brief Q & A with the Miami Herald to talk about hot topics like school choice and immigration. The secretary was cautious in her responses but shared thoughts on bilingual education and protections for undocumented immigrant students. Here are highlights from the interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What do you think about the different education options in Miami?

A: Well, as you know, I was able to visit a wide array of schools and have a variety of experiences in doing so and I think the bottom-line takeaway is what a rich offering of educational options there are in Miami-Dade. I also felt very keenly the intentional collaborative nature of these efforts and that’s very encouraging.

Q: Jeb Bush is seen as a trailblazer in Florida when it comes to school choice options and is also a friend of yours. Do you share ideas?

A: We have shared many ideas in the past years. I served on the board of the organization he started and our paths have crossed many, many times over the years as we have done work in a variety of states. Our views and our heart for every child is very similar.

Q: Have you been in communication with him since you took on the new role as secretary?

A: He has congratulated me and has reached out on a couple of occasions, too. We’ve touched based only very casually... Because I’m no longer on the Excel in Ed board [an organization launched by Jeb Bush], I don’t have regular interaction.

More here.

Photo credit: C.M. Guerrero, el Nuevo Herald

April 06, 2017

Diverging from Senate, House passes narrower plan for religious expression in school

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@ByKristenMClark

Lawmakers on either side of the Florida Capitol have different ideas on to what extent they should secure students’ and teachers’ rights to express religious beliefs in public schools — forcing the need for compromise before the Legislature can send a proposed law to the governor for his approval this spring.

A plan the Florida House approved Wednesday by a 114-3 vote fortifies basic rights to religious expression that are protected by the state and U.S. Constitutions. The Senate two weeks ago endorsed language that does that, too, but that also goes much further — by also requiring schools to give students a “limited public forum” to pray and otherwise express their beliefs at school assemblies and other school-sanctioned events.

The two proposals were originally identical, but a House committee quickly scaled back that chamber’s version to eliminate the more controversial elements that remain in the Senate-approved bill.

The House vote sends SB 436 back to the Senate — where senators can either make further changes or agree to the House language, which would then send the bill to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk to be signed into law. Senators could potentially take it up as early as Thursday, but it’s more likely to happen next week.

Full story here.

Photo credit: The Florida House. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times