March 07, 2017

Measure seeks to ensure 'religious liberties' in schools, but critics fear discrimination



Students and teachers in Florida’s public schools would more explicitly have the right to say the Lord’s Prayer, pray to Allah or worship Satan under a highly polarizing measure that’s being fast-tracked through the Florida Senate as the 2017 session begins this week.

Called a “religious liberties” bill, SB 436 is intended to “clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who’s driving the measure in the Senate.

“I grew up in an America where you were free to express your faith, and there was no intimidation of whether you could say ‘Jesus’ out loud or not,” Baxley said. “This is where we’ve come: The pendulum has swung so far that there’s been a chilling effect on people of faith of just expressing and being who they are.”

While comments before the Senate Education Committee on Monday heavily emphasized a need to protect Christians, Baxley’s bill would shield students, teachers and school staff of all faiths from religious discrimination — protections already guaranteed through the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Florida House

March 06, 2017

'Dramatic' reforms in play for all levels of public education



Every level of Florida’s public education system — affecting kindergarten to university students — faces some measure of drastic reform in the upcoming legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Just some of what’s on the table:

▪ “Dramatic” expansions of school choice alternatives in K-12 public schools and the state’s voucher-like scholarship programs are a top priority of Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran. His education chairmen also have grand goals of narrowing the achievement gap for the state’s lowest-performing schools by attracting and expanding innovative educational options.

▪ The operations of Florida’s 28 public colleges could be reined in over what some senators see as unnecessary competition with the state’s public universities, sparking a need for more oversight.

▪ And the State University System itself faces a changed future as Republican Senate President Joe Negron seeks to make Florida’s 12 public universities globally competitive with the likes of the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan.

It’s a bold, sweeping agenda for both the House and Senate — intentionally so, Republican leaders say.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 28, 2017

Roads named for celebrities are OK, but not laws named to honor the people who inspired them

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Mayra Capote was a 15-year-old freshman at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School when she and two other students were killed in a car accident in September 1999 as they rushed back to school from an open-campus lunch break.

In the weeks afterward, Miami-Dade public schools changed district policy to prevent students from leaving school grounds during the lunch hour. And in the nearly 18 years since, Hialeah Republican Sen. René García has tried several times to prevent future tragedies statewide by seeking a Florida law affecting all public high schools.

With his most recent attempt this year, García sought to name the proposed law directly in honor of Mayra.

But her name was abruptly deleted from the bill last week — at the request of Senate President Joe Negron.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Mayra Capote, 15, and two high school students died in a car accident in 1999 while coming back to school from an open-lunch break. Hialeah Republican Sen. René García this year wanted to name a proposed state law after the younger Mayra, but the 15-year-old’s name was taken out of his bill at Senate President Joe Negron’s request. (Herald file photo)

February 27, 2017

The annual debate over charter, traditional school capital funding resumes



Once again, Florida lawmakers will try to force school districts to share part of their local tax dollars with charter schools so that those privately managed schools can enjoy the same access to funding for maintenance and construction projects as traditional public schools.

The Legislature tried to enact such a mandate in 2015 and came close to doing it last year, too — until the House rejected a Senate plan to prevent charter-school operators from profiting off the taxpayer funding they receive.

MORE FROM POLITIFACT: “Do traditional schools get more capital funding than charter schools?”

The Senate is taking the lead this time by not only reviving its proposal to ban “personal financial enrichment” of charter school operators as a condition of getting public dollars for capital projects, but by pairing it with another controversial idea.

One year later, the debate resumes.

One Senate Republican leader, with some Democratic support, wants to let school boards raise taxes to generate more capital funding for their local schools’ needs. But that plan has already hit a roadblock — House Republicans and some senators who are wary of being labeled as having supported a “tax increase.”

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 23, 2017

Plasencia: 'No one actively lobbying against' daily recess mandate

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State Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, told reporters Thursday that "there's no one that's actively lobbying against" efforts to require mandatory daily recess in Florida's public elementary schools.

There has so far been no obvious or outspoken public opposition to the measure, but district administrators quietly have voiced concerns about requiring all schools to have recess -- citing a potential lack of time in the existing school day. (A few lawmakers, like House Education Committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, also don't like the idea of imposing another statewide mandate.)

Although there was resounding support for the statewide daily requirement last session in the House, only one school district -- Orange County -- took action to fall in line with what lawmakers had sought to do. Miami-Dade County did revise its existing policy to encourage more time for recess, but it's still not required daily.

IN-DEPTH: “Quest for daily recess: Moms renew fight for more free play in Florida Legislature”

Plasencia said he's spoken with many school districts, and "what they're trying to do is have some input so they can integrate it in a much more productive way into their school days."

"It's tough on the school districts because, in the past, there have been a lot of mandates that have been handed down," said Plasencia, who is sponsoring the House bill for the second year in a row.

Plasencia and Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, the Senate sponsor, were joined at a press conference on Thursday at the Capitol by recess moms from North Florida and representatives of the Florida PTA.

With success earlier this week in getting the Senate bill heard, they called on Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala to schedule a hearing on the House bill when his K-12 Innovation Subcommittee next meets in March.

Photo credit: State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, and state Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, speak at a press conference on Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017 about their legislation to require 20 minutes of recess daily in Florida's public elementary schools. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Florida Senate could vote on higher ed reforms during first week of 2017 session

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A top priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is ready for the full Senate to vote on once the 2017 session begins March 7.

The higher education package -- formerly two bills now blended into one (SB 2) -- includes a variety of reforms intended to elevate Florida's State University System and its state colleges to a more competitive level, nationally and internationally.

"We should be at the very top of our game in our state university and college system," said Bradenton Republican Sen. Bill Galvano, the higher ed budget chairman who spearheaded the legislation. "We should raise expectations, and that’s what we’re doing."

SB 2 -- dubbed the "Florida Excellence in Higher Education Act of 2017" -- advanced unanimously out of the Senate's full budget committee Thursday morning with some additional revisions. Negron told the Herald/Times the bill will be among the first considered by the chamber during the first week of session next month.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 21, 2017

Daily recess requirement advances in Florida Senate

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Parent-driven efforts to require daily recess in Florida’s public elementary schools cleared a key milestone on Tuesday: An actual hearing — plus a favorable vote — in a state Senate committee.

Although similar legislation last year earned near-unanimous approval in the House, senators never had the chance to formally consider the issue, because one committee chairman refused to take up the bill.

Not this year.

The 7-0 vote by the Senate Education Committee gives the recess legislation (SB 78) a more viable path in the upcoming session, which begins March 7.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

February 20, 2017

Florida Legislature's own research reveals disparities in school recess

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For more than a year, whenever a “recess mom” has come to the Florida Capitol and pleaded with lawmakers, they have told stories of their child’s lack of access to daily recess — offering anecdotes from their child’s school or school district to showcase the inequities of unstructured playtime offered in Florida’s public schools.

Informal surveys of parents in some counties, like Pinellas or Miami-Dade, have seemed to support their assertions.

IN-DEPTH: “Quest for daily recess: Moms renew fight for more free play in Florida Legislature”

But if lawmakers need official, solid evidence of the disparities in school recess, they need look no further than the findings of their own research analysts.

The Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability (OPPAGA) last fall surveyed all 67 county school districts about their recess policies and also sought responses from 2,900 public elementary and middle schools.

The results revealed broad inconsistencies in whether school districts and specific schools actually offer daily recess, and if they do, how frequently and for how long.

The data — presented to some senators last week — comes as the Senate Education Committee is poised to vote Tuesday on legislation that would require 20 minutes of daily recess in all Florida public elementary schools, or 100 minutes a week.

Read more here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

February 17, 2017

Lawmaker wants mental health screenings for conceal-carry applicants


Individuals who want a state-issued permit to carry a concealed gun in Florida would first have to pass a mental health evaluation under a new proposal from a Miami-Dade County senator.

The measure (SB 956) comes six weeks after a gunman who had shown signs of mental illness shot and killed five people and injured six others in a baggage claim area of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

State Sen. Daphne Campbell, D-Miami Shores, said the impetus for her proposal came not only from the airport shooting but the ongoing gun violence in Miami-Dade — such as in her district, which includes Liberty City.

“Everybody’s talking about gun violence, but what do we do about it?” Campbell said. “We have to do something. ... It’s crucial. People’s lives are in jeopardy. How are we going to protect our people? That’s why I add this piece to make it harder and stricter on people who want to get a gun permit.”

About 20 gun-related proposals have been filed for the upcoming 2017 legislative session, but Campbell’s is the first related to mental health — particularly in the wake of the Fort Lauderdale shooting.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Miami Shores Democratic state Sen. Daphne Campbell, shown here in the Florida House in 2015, has proposed a bill that would require people applying for a concealed weapons permit in Florida to undergo and clear a mental health evaluation. Florida House.

Florida teachers union leaders: We want better pay for all, not a new legislative 'gimmick'

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Leaders of local and state teachers unions tell the Herald/Times that they are eager for more details on the Florida Legislature's planned expansion of teacher incentives. But -- with lingering criticism of the two-year-old "Best & Brightest" bonuses -- they aren't very optimistic that lawmakers will come up with a true solution to poor teacher compensation.

"These guys don’t get it. Hiring teachers is not the problem. Retaining them is," Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association, said in a text message.

Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade, called the proposed expanded incentives "a gimmick" by lawmakers "to avoid paying our teachers adequately."

MORE: "$200 million for teacher incentives? Florida lawmakers crafting plan to do it"

"Teachers don’t want bonus pay; they want real pay," she said, adding that permanent increases to the base student allocation — which could help districts afford to pay teachers more — "is really the only thing that’s going to help with our teacher shortage."

Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said in a statement: "The devil is in the details. We can’t give any indication of what we think of this proposal until we know about who qualifies and how teachers could access this money."

McCall said Florida’s teachers salaries are $10,000 below the national average and need to be made more competitive with other states.

"If this proposal works to alleviate this discrepancy, we could support it," McCall said.

"If it's another scheme like 'Best & Brightest' that doesn’t address the core problems of paying teachers and education staff professionals adequate and competitive salaries, we’d have problems with it," McCall said. "We didn’t create the system but we do what is asked, and if a teacher meets the requirements of the complicated evaluation system they should be paid for it — not some — all."

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this report.

Photo credit: EL NUEVO HERALD