January 27, 2016

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



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

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

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

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

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

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January 26, 2016

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


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

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

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

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

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

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Florida Legislature seeks again to limit school boards association


A controversial proposal aimed at curtailing lawsuits against the state by the Florida School Boards Association is back for the 2016 session and is starting to move through both chambers of the Florida Legislature.

House Bill 1155/Senate Bill 1426 prohibit membership groups -- namely, the FSBA -- from using public dollars to sue the state, a move that critics argue could have a chilling effect on the group's ability to challenge laws and programs its members feel are unconstitutional.

Both bills -- which passed their first House and Senate committees on Tuesday -- refer broadly to "membership associations" that receive taxpayer dollars, but the hearings in both chambers focused almost solely on the school board association and its recent participation in a lawsuit challenging a voucher-like state program that helps children from low-income families afford private school.

The FSBA had joined the legal fight against the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships but later withdrew. The Florida Education Association is still fighting that case.

State lawmakers' attempt to rein in the FSBA originated last year in the midst of that lawsuit. Last session, legislation passed the House overwhelmingly, but it never got a floor vote in the Senate.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is sponsoring this year's Senate version and she told senators it's been narrowly tailored so it "only applies to, for the most part, the school board association."

She said the FSBA has a "large public interest," which means it should be scrutinized as a "quasi-public organization."

"With the amount of dollars they’re receiving from our public funds, we need to have that amount of accountability," she said.

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January 25, 2016

Florida House scrutinizes public schools' construction spending

Erik fresen


Setting the tone for an adversarial debate this session, Florida House Republican leaders want to rein in what they call a “disturbing pattern” of school districts “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed limit for spending on school construction projects.

Citing annual data that districts report to the state, House education budget Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said public schools have spent more than $1.2 billion over the last nine years in excess of a legal cap that dictates how much in state money schools can spend “per student station,” or the space required for each individual student.

His findings were discussed by the full House Appropriations Committee last week and offer a prelude to further conversations this session about both the annual education budget and proposed new restrictions traditional public schools might face in how they spend capital dollars.

But some Democrats and public school representatives said Fresen’s findings aren’t the whole picture.

They said requiring accountable spending of taxpayers’ dollars is a conversation worth having, but they said Fresen’s conclusions over-simplify how school construction projects are funded. In addition to state aide, districts have their own local sources of revenue — such as local sales tax and bond referenda — which they’ve had to rely on more and more as the state has cut funding and shifted dollars to charter schools.

House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, who sits on the budget committee, told the Herald/Times the conversation serves as another attack on Florida’s public education system by a Republican-led Legislature that’s friendly to for-profit charter schools and voucher programs.

“The Legislature commonly uses information and manipulates it to fit its own argument,” Pafford said of Fresen’s presentation last week. “There was a lot not mentioned. ... They’re purposely breaking the back of the public education system.”

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ICYMI: Florida Legislature looking at smaller school districts

Lawmakers are in the early stages of exploring a drastic overhaul to how public schools are locally governed in Florida, which some superintendents and school board officials say could have severe consequences on equitable funding and educational opportunities for 2.8 million schoolchildren.

Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, are proposing a constitutional amendment that would allow citywide school districts, instead of the countywide oversight the Florida Constitution requires.

The Constitution empowers lawmakers to create and dissolve cities and special districts, and Caldwell said that should extend to school boards, also. He argued the proposal (HJR 539/SJR 734) would increase local control over neighborhood schools.

“When you look at our larger school districts, parents don’t feel they’re able to have the kind of impact they want to. It’s an impracticality of a large district,” Caldwell said.

But school superintendents said the system of countywide districts works well and saves taxpayers’ money. They said increasing the number of school districts statewide would cause administrative costs to skyrocket, without actually improving student outcomes.

“It would significantly deteriorate the amount of funding that actually goes into the classroom,” Broward County Superintendent Robert Runcie said.

The biggest fear, though: Students in wealthier cities would have access to better schools than those in impoverished areas, because those schools would have a more concentrated, more affluent tax base from which to draw local funding.

More here.

January 22, 2016

Marco Rubio opposes Common Core but backed some ideas behind it

via @learyreports

Marco Rubio has been attacking Chris Christie over Common Core and yesterday went after Jeb Bush, saying the former governor was “nowhere to be found” when Republicans were fighting President Obama’s agenda and “spent most of his time traveling the country trying to push” the education standards.

Bush’s support is clear as is the damage it has done to him in the presidential race. But while Rubio never advocated for Common Core, he was a proponent of the building blocks.

Bush on Thursday noted that Rubio had supported Race to the Top, the federal program that incentivized states to adopt Common Core.

I think that’s a good idea,” Rubio said in 2009. He did stress, however, that he felt “education is a state function, best regulated and governed at the state level.”

That year Rubio also praised Obama’s hire of Arne Duncan as education secretary, calling him an “innovator” while praising the federal government’s effort “encouraging” states to adopt curriculums “that reflect the 21st Century.”

Rubio’s 100 Ideas book, a template for his tenure as House speaker, endorsed ideas such as more testing and a revamped curriculum. Idea No. 2 called for Florida to “systematically and sequentially replace the Sunshine State Standards with a new, world-class curriculum comparable to those found in the leading education systems in the world.”

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January 21, 2016

University presidents aim to meet governor's call for post-grad job placement


Presidents and administrators from Florida’s 12 public universities and one private one presented their ideas Thursday to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet on how they plan to meet Scott's call to increase job placement of graduates in the universities' most popular programs.

The most common ideas proposed include offering career counseling services as soon as freshmen enroll and continuing that effort during the students' time on campus through dedicated advisers, internship placement programs and job-skill training activities.

Some of the more unique solutions mentioned range from free passports for Florida A&M University students in Tallahassee who study abroad to prepare themselves for a global workforce, to a freshman-year tuition rebate for students at Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers, who use campus career services, stay enrolled for four years and secure a job within six months of graduation.

FGCU president Wilson Bradshaw told the governor and cabinet that he expects that initiative will cost $1.5 million, which the university plans to fund through private donors.

"This will save them (the students) money and provide them with some much-needed start-up funds as they start on the path to a successful career," he said.

Each of the university presidents expressed emphatic support for Scott's "Ready, Set, Work" challenge, which he issued in December. He wants 100 percent of the students graduating from each university's two most popular programs to secure jobs within one year.

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January 20, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonus plan advances with key Senate vote but hurdles remain


In a pivotal vote, a Senate education committee on Wednesday narrowly gave its support for continuing a controversial program that awards teacher bonuses based, in part, on how well they did on college-entrance exams.

Although the "Best and Brightest" program is in its first year, senators didn't debate it last year -- only the House did -- so Wednesday's vote was the first true test of legislative support for it in the 2016 session.

Its chances, at this stage, in the Senate: Not good.

Senate Bill 978 barely passed the Pre-K-12 Education Committee by a 6-5 vote, with Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity -- the bill sponsor -- joining the panel's four Democrats in opposition.

It could have died in that committee were it not for a couple of Republicans -- including Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice -- who said they only voted in favor of it this time so as not to kill a priority of the House during the second week of the legislative session and so as to give other lawmakers an opportunity to fix it.

After criticizing the "ill-thought-out" eligibility criteria in the bonus plan, Detert finished her remarks by imploring House leaders: "Could you please put in the time to make it a bill we can be proud of, instead of one we’re ashamed of?"

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Florida House, Senate committees advance open enrollment measures


Students in K-12 public schools across Florida could attend any public school in the state so long as it's not at capacity, under open enrollment proposals that cleared their first House and Senate committees Wednesday.

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee advanced House Bill 669 from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, despite objections from Democrats. Later, a majority of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee also endorsed Senate Bill 886 from Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, with similar criticisms but less friction.

Both plans seek to remove geographic barriers parents and children face in terms of where a child can attend public school in Florida -- while giving priority to students who live within a school district already, as well as children of military service members. 

Sprowls' proposal would allow open enrollment starting in the 2017-18 school year, but there's a complication. Allowing students to attend schools outside their county would affect how state and local dollars are used to pay for schools.

Sprowls' plan calls for a fiscal study through Florida Polytechnic University to analyze how the local share of state education dollars could be transferred among schools and districts. But that study wouldn't have to be done until November 2017 -- a few months into the first year that open enrollment would be allowed.

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Proposed constitutional amendment would give state ability to authorize new charter schools


A proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that would give a state board the power to authorize and control charter schools statewide gained its first approval in a House committee on Wednesday.

The proposal from state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, is one of several bills moving in the Legislature this session that could shift oversight of charter schools from school districts to the state -- in part, as a reaction to local school boards that have tried to stop the proliferation of charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. There are more than 650 operating in Florida now.

Diaz's proposal (HJR 759) would direct the State Board of Education to set up a "statewide charter school authorizer to authorize, operate, control and supervise charter schools." There's no criteria listed for how members would be chosen to serve on the proposed authorizing board.

Diaz argued school districts would still have the ability to authorize charter schools themselves and this simply provides an alternative.

"We're not removing local control," said Diaz, who has ties to the charter school industry.

However, he acknowledged charter school operators would be able to choose whether to send their application to the state or to the local school district for approval -- which Democrats said would let operators pick the more favorable venue.

"It’s really kind of forum shopping. You get to pick who it is that's your judge," Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said. "I don’t think that’s appropriate."

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