February 07, 2018

Battle royale: Florida House gears up for what could be its biggest debate of the session

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A screen capture from a negative ad ran by the statewide teachers' association opposing HB 7055 | YouTube

It's a debate worth about $26.9 billion, and involves the most fundamental, nagging question surrounding Florida's education system: What does Florida owe its students in public education?

And it begins today — at least this year's rendition.

The Florida House's omnibus education bill, HB 7055, is slated to be heard on the floor Wednesday afternoon — an event that promises to be one of the biggest debates of the 2018 session. The nearly 200-page bill incorporates everything from the creation of a new scholarship for students who struggle in reading to slapping potentially life-threatening requirements on teachers' unions.

It also includes a top priority for Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, in its voucher for students that are bullied which would allow them to attend another public or private school.

The bill is so much of a priority that, in an unprecedented move, House leadership tied the per-student funding language for all public schools, meaning that $21.1 billion of public school funding is "contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law," according to the budget.

Democrats may not have the votes in the 76-40 sea of red that is the Florida House of Representatives, but they have vowed to trade every bargaining chip, deploy every amendment and fight as hard as they can to stop or alter the bill and what they said is a legally-questionable budgetary tactic.

As of Tuesday evening, 37 amendments were filed for HB 7055. The House must debate and vote on every single one.

"It's not in my system to file 18 amendments. I’m the type to say, 'Let's work together and figure this out,'" said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee. "But I cannot sit back and watch our public education system blow up at the hands of ... outside interests that want to continue to fill their pockets up."

He then added: "And if I don’t see a dime in the budget or get another bill heard because of this, I’m OK ."

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said he expects a debate but that it would be "surprising" if it does not pass out of the House.

Wednesday marks the beginning of debate for the budget and its amendments but HB 7055 will officially be voted upon Thursday.

"We'll present the budget, we'll present the bill, I'm sure they'll have an opportunity to present their debates and they will be voted on accordingly," he said. "We're in no rush. We'll take as long as it takes."

Trujillo is the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee and has accepted President Donald Trump's nomination to be a U.S. Ambassador to the OAS, meaning that once the U.S. Senate confirms his appointment, he'll move to Washington. He had originally said that the passage of 7055 was not tied to the per-student funding for statewide public schools, also known as FEFP. But after a reporter sent him the budgetary language, he confirmed that he had been mistaken.

"The assumption is correct," Trujillo said. "Obviously it's not our intention to defund the FEFP and it's something that if the bill is not reported favorably we will obviously amend to fix it."

Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, said even if it passes this way, having this hardball approach does not bode well for the House and Senate to be able to negotiate effectively when both chambers must reconcile the differences between their passed budgets.

He has filed an amendment to strike that language from the budget to separate 7055 from the FEFP.

"It's unlikely we’re going to leave here without funding public education," Richardson said. "It's a budget blowup possibility then we’re back in special session. It sets up a situation for a blowup before we’ve even started."

February 06, 2018

Campus free speech bill passes Senate Education. But does it expand students’ rights?

Free speech
OCTAVIO JONES | Times Julie Solace, 23, of Tampa marches along with other student activists in the SlutWalk event at the University of South Florida's Martin Luther King Plaza in Tampa, Florida on Monday, October 30, 2017.

Tuesday was Florida State University Day at the Capitol, and shortly before the Seminole marching band began blaring their triumphant "War Chant" outside, the Senate Education committee was locked in heated debate over free speech on university campuses.

The committee eventually passed SB 1234, sponsored by Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, along party lines. It has one more committee in the Senate before it will hit the floor and its House version is on a similar track.

The bill has essentially two halves: one piece would expressly put schools on the hook for lawsuits, fines and attorneys fees if they violate certain free speech rules, including if protests are found to "materially disrupt" previously scheduled events.

"I don't like that. I have talked to some members of the legislature about that. I think it's going a little bit too far," said FSU President John Thrasher, a former Speaker of the Florida House, who was at the Capitol. "I don't think we need that and I think they're going to work on it."

Democratic lawmakers, including Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., of Lauderhill voiced concern during committee that this bill could take away the power of universities to have control over the events that take place on their campuses, and could discourage counter-protests like those that were staged at the University of Florida when white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke last fall. Thurston proposed several amendments, one of which would have ensured the right to peacefully counter-protest, that did not pass.

"It's always prefaced on the fact they cannot disrupt or disturb, it just reserves the right to protest," he said. "At the time of the Richard Spencer … there were protests of that event as well. So the faculty has the ability to allow people to disagree to actually express that they're disagreeing with the presenter."

He later called the bill "unnecessary."

A representative of the American Civil Liberties Union spoke against this portion of the bill, saying it would give universities financial incentives to chill student speech. However, it supported the other half of SB 1234: which would require public universities and colleges to dissolve designated "free speech zones," or areas they have set aside for student protests.

"This is to address a flourishing limitation of free speech, particularly across the country, many of our universities are restricting free speech to 'free speech zones,'" he said. "And there's something very antithetical to a free speech environment and saying you can have free speech but only in this little square."

A few Florida universities, such as the University of Central Florida and Florida State University, guide students to open areas well-suited for protests, but those institutions have emphasized that these zones are not restrictive.

Others, like the University of West Florida, for example, do have dedicated zones, where all non-scheduled gatherings must be held.

January 31, 2018

Teachers' unions say House Republican bill puts them at risk

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The teachers' union in Miami-Dade is one that has said the bill could cause them to become decertified. WALTER MICHOT |The Miami Herald

TALLAHASSEE — It’s only a few lines tucked inside a 200-page bill in the Florida House. But teachers’ unions across the state are raising alarms, saying the proposed rule could expose public school teachers to major pay cuts and job losses.

The rule requires teachers’ unions — and only teachers’ unions — to maintain 50 percent membership among the total number of teachers eligible to be part of their groups or risk getting decertified.

Representatives with the United Teachers of Dade, the largest local teachers’ union in Florida, said its membership is currently just below 50 percent and would be hurt by the new rule if it led to the decertification of the union.

“Thirty thousand employees would lose planning time, there would be no limit on meetings they’d have to attend, no duty-free lunch, they can stay long hours after school and be fired at any moment,” said Karla Hernandez Mats, the president of that union. She added that if this bill passes, “many teachers should be prepared to have no job next year.”

The language for the 50 percent rule appeared in a different bill, HB 25, which passed the House floor but had no companion in the Senate, rendering its chances for success fairly slim. The original bill would have applied to all unions except for police and fire.

But the teacher’s unions threshold was added this week to HB 7055, the House’s major omnibus education bill that addresses numerous issues, from computerized testing to school governance to funding vouchers for bullied students — a major priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

That means a measure that endangers teachers’ unions is now tied to a bill rapidly advancing through House committees despite loud protests from Democrats.

“Since when have we come to a place where you don’t want individuals to represent themselves?” said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. “What we can’t do is silence the mouths of people.”

Earlier this week, Jones vowed to negotiate with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, the education committee chair, to take the language on teachers’ unions out of HB 7055. However, when the bill was passed along party lines through House Appropriations on Wednesday, the union portion remained.

Bileca said the bill isn’t targeting teachers, but can only include teachers’ unions because it’s an education bill and thus can only deal with education issues.

The 50 percent threshold is intended to preserve the rights of the majority, Bileca said.

“A minority leadership ... is not a voice for the majority,” he said.

He emphasized that because the ideas included in HB 7055 have been “thoroughly vetted” by going through separate committees before they were combined, they were fair game to be packaged together.

This union measure puts yet another strain on the distrustful relationship between public schools and the Legislature, which has spent much of its energy pushing through bills promoting school choice. Last session, a similar mega-bill, HB 7069, was passed late during session. It has since been challenged in court by some school districts.

In other states, hits to teachers’ unions have had big consequences. In 2011, Wisconsin voted to restrict the bargaining power of teachers’ unions and required an annual vote for them to remain certified. That school year, about 11 percent of teachers there left the profession, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund.

“They don’t even try to hide it. They just want to eliminate the teachers’ union,” said Mike Gandolfo, president of the Pinellas County Teachers Association.

The privatization of schools is the ultimate goal, said Gandolfo, which would be made easier if the teachers’ unions are eliminated because “no else is standing in their way.”

Pinellas County’s union, as well as the one in Pasco, hovers close to the 50 percent membership cutoff, Gandolfo said. In the summers, older teachers retire and new teachers attend orientation, a transition period when membership dips.

“I assume they’re going to choose the most nefarious time,” Gandolfo added.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, chair of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, said districts will benefit from the new rules.

“Every school district that we talk to, every superintendent they always say they want more flexibility,” he said. “This provides more flexibility and it’s really a choice for the membership I don’t see how this doesn’t benefit in any way any side other than the districts themselves.”

He dismissed allegations from several union leaders that he would personally gain from a weakened public teachers’ unions. He is the Chief Operating Officer for Doral College, which is affiliated with prominent charter company Academica.

While the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association has said its membership is “well over” the 50 percent margin, its executive director Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins still had misgivings about the rule.

“The teacher’s union has been very vocal in some of the horrific things they have done to public education in the last several years,” she said. “I think this is clearly retribution for vocally opposing the selling off of public schools.”

Tampa Bay Times staff writer Jeffrey Solocheck contributed to this report.


Contact Emily L. Mahoney at emahoney@tampabay.com. Follow @mahoneysthename.

Florida Democrats protest all they want, but Republicans are pushing through huge education bill anyway.

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The House's new omnibus education package, HB 7055, passed the House Appropriations committee Wednesday along party lines, over bitter protests by Democrats who said the measure unfairly forced a take-it-or-leave-it strategy by the majority party.

The bill had grown by 89 pages since it was last heard in a House committee just last week. Among the items added:

  • new membership requirements for teachers' unions to stay certified, prompting unions to call this a "union-busting" effort
  • a "Medal of Honor Day"
  • funding for tax credit scholarships for bullied students — a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran's.

In its original 109 pages, the bill also:

  • scales back computerized testing
  • directs more than $9 million to a scholarship program for third-graders who struggle in reading
  • allows schools to create independent governing boards under the supervision of district school boards
  • expands a program to have excelling principals oversee multiple schools at once.

As an enticement for Democrats, it also adds accountability measures for private schools receiving state voucher funding.

"Once again we have this train," said Rep. Bobby DuBose, D-Fort Lauderdale, using legislative jargon to describe a bill with a bundle of unrelated items. "The problem is you have one side of the aisle that's crafting all the policy and shoving it one way."

DuBose said the divisiveness of the bill "almost breaks my heart" and "shines a very dark light on who we are and what we're capable of doing."

The bill has been fast-tracked since it was introduced Thursday and is already ready to go to the House floor.

House Republicans have contested the idea that it is "7069 on steroids," as Democrats have said, referring to last year's massive school choice bill that was rammed through in the final days of a special session. School districts have sued the Legislature over that bill, saying it violated the Florida Constitution's requirement that every bill stick to a single subject.

"There's a lot of great policy in there, there's one or two things that those who opposed the bill focused on," said chair of the House Education Committee Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, referencing the bullying vouchers that many of the Democrats opposed.

"But I think what we just did was basically take all the major concepts that are in the conforming bill and put them out for public debate, public discussion and we'll have lots of time left in session for the debate to go on."

January 25, 2018

House K-12 mega-bill has first public airing

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Rep. Michael Bileca, R- Miami SCOTT KEELER | Times

A giant K-12 education package bill had its first public presentation on Thursday in the House Education Committee, where it passed despite light criticism from Democrats who requested more time to review its many provisions.

The bill, which was posted online Tuesday night on the committee's page, addresses a myriad of issues such as accountability of private schools receiving tax credits, allows schools to set up their own governing boards with school board approval and expands a now-pilot program for excelling principals to oversee multiple schools.

It would also create a new tax credit scholarship of about $300 to $500, called the Reading Scholarship Account, for third-graders who do poorly on reading exams.

When Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, requested the committee wait until a later date to vote on the bill so they had more time to review the specifics, committee Chair Rep. Michael Bileca said the bill was a "work in progress" and they needed to keep it moving.

Addressing one provision that concerned some members, Bileca, R-Miami, said allowing principals to establish independent governing boards will allow district schools to better compete with charter schools by having more autonomy and room to experiment.

"When I was meeting with districts something I heard over and over again was, 'Just let us have a level playing field,'" he said. "Let's look for those areas that can give you (districts) more ability for meaningful change."

Another provision that stirred skepticism among some members of the committee and the public were the allowable uses of the reading scholarship, which include paying private tutors and supplemental learning materials but also putting the money into a college savings account.

"Why are we allowing these funds to be saved for college? How is that going to help the student to read in third grade?" asked Marie-Claire Leman, a leader in the grassroots group Common Core who spoke at the meeting.

Bileca said that section could change based on the concerns he heard.

Although it is the most far-reaching preK-12 bill this session so far, this 109-page proposal joins the ranks of many other school choice-related bills that have been passing through committees as the topic remains a central focus of the Legislature. Others would grant scholarships for students with disabilities so they could attend private schools, or expands the Schools of Hope program that encourages charter schools to open near low-performing district campuses.

January 24, 2018

More than $600 million? That's a key difference between Florida House and Senate higher education plans.

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Sen. Bill Galvano, left, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, have about $645 million of differences to work out on higher education spending. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]

The Florida House and Senate started the 2018 session with unified messages supporting increases to higher education funding. Two weeks later, however, the chambers have a difference of opinion — worth more than $600 million.

The Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Higher Education introduced its budget proposal Wednesday, calling for a 6.6 percent increase in spending for colleges and universities, or $383 million.  Meanwhile, the House’s proposal, unveiled Tuesday, proposes to cut $217 million from universities alone with about a $45 million net reduction for colleges.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who chairs the subcommittee, said the extent of the House cuts caught him off guard.

“The level of cuts proposed by the House was more than I expected,” he said. “It just means there’s a bigger delta that has to be negotiated going forward into conference.”

Because these plans or so different, higher education will likely become a major bargaining chip in the weeks to come if lawmakers want to approve a state budget by the time regular session ends on March 9.

Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has repeatedly said increased university funding is a top priority, and the first act of the Senate this session was to pass a bill with sweeping changes aimed at elevating Florida's university status nationally. One of the costliest provisions is an expansion of the merit-based Bright Futures Scholarships so that above average students who don't qualify for full rides would have 75 percent of their tuition covered (up from about half now).

Negron told reporters then that he considered House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, a “strong ally” who would help him make Florida’s universities “top-notch.”

And in an interview two weeks ago, Corcoran emphasized the need to improve Florida’s universities, saying that it was “inexcusable” for the third-largest state to have only had a university ranking in the top 10 nationally for the first time last year.

“We don’t have enough faculty,” he said. “Now we're going to give money to a company in North Palm Beach, we're going to give them tens of millions of dollars to relocate 6 miles down the road to Palm Beach? Or are we going to give that money to hiring more faculty at the University of Florida? They’re all binary choices.”

Despite those sentiments, two other goals sit atop Corcoran’s session wishlist: a crackdown on “sanctuary cities” and school vouchers for bullied students.

Additionally, the House and Senate disagree over how to pump more money in preK-12 education. The House rejects the Senate’s proposal to capitalize on increased property values, which it views as a tax hike.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said the House's proposed higher education budget was a "departure” from where the Senate is heading.

"A lot of people are speculating that this is about the back and forth between the House and the Senate and the House is aware that our president's priority legislation is his higher education bill," said Farmer, who sits on the higher education budget committee. "I’m hopeful the Senate stands strong on our policy and the products we've come up with that are a result of a lot of discussion and comprise. That’s the way the legislative process is supposed to be. It's not supposed to be about forced tactics."

There is still a House companion bill for the Bright Futures Scholarship change that passed in the Senate, which has to pass two more committees before it is brought to the House floor. However, unlike the Senate, the House did not include the Bright Futures increase in its budget proposal, raising questions about its funding.

“The policy we agree on, but the policy is not going to go anywhere unless we have the dollars to support it,” Galvano said.

When the House subcommittee proposed its cuts, Chair Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, said higher education has a surplus of funding because universities and colleges can rollover extra cash into rainy day funds, and state funding for universities has steadily grown in recent years.

“In this budget we will be recommending that we start slowing that growth,” he said. “The intent is to reduce operating funds, and thereby entice colleges to spend some of their fund balances.” Michael Brawer, executive director and chief executive of the Association of Florida Colleges, said he disagreed that higher education should be used to balance the state’s budget.

"I really don't have much to say about the House budget,” he said. “We’re starting in a hole, again."

Mark Walsh, a lobbyist for Tampa’s University of South Florida, said the universities’ reserve funds would offset the House’s cuts, although he still thinks a funding increase for universities is “likely.”

“The Senate has made a priority of increasing funds specifically for universities and even state colleges this year, so I think they’re going to negotiate hard for that,” he said. “I think the House will get there.”

Because the House’s proposed cuts are based on complex funding categories and formulas, there was no breakdown of cuts for each school. However, Walsh said it’s probable that any cuts would be based on how much each university or college has in the bank.

Times staff writer Claire McNeill contributed to this report.

January 23, 2018

House pitches $100 increase in per-student K-12 funding

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Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr. SCOTT KEELER | Times

The long slog of passing a state budget has begun, and Tuesday the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee made the first move to shape next year’s school funding by proposing $100 more per student statewide.

Gov. Rick Scott has suggested a similar increase, relying on increased property values to fund the boost. But the House would instead adjust the pool of properties that are taxed to include the value of new construction.

"This continues the House's commitment to reducing taxes," said Sen. Manny Diaz,  Jr., R-Hialeah.

Tomorrow, the parallel Senate committee is expected to discuss its budget, and both will eventually have to be passed by each chamber and then negotiated before reaching the governor's desk — meaning nearly everything is subject to change.

Last year, the legislature had to meet in a special session to settle education funding, something lawmakers are now hoping to avoid.

Tuesday's House committee also passed a bill that would eliminate the requirement that the 300 lowest-performing schools use their extra state funding to add an extra hour of reading instruction per day.

This could lead to a fight in the Senate where the provision has been fought for and well-regarded.

Senate moves along Hope Scholarships, changes to charter contracts and more

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Sen. Bill Galvano SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Senate Education Committee passed several controversial bills Monday evening, including the Hope Scholarships bill (SB1172), which would grant money to students who are victims of bullying, assault, robbery and other types of violence to allow them to move to another public or private school.


The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and the House version passed through that chamber in the first week of session. The Senate bill has an added a provision that would have school administrators investigate whether bullying allegations are substantiated before the student would be offered the voucher.

The bill passed by a vote along party lines, and Democratic senators expressed doubts that this measure would solve the root cause of the bullying or ensure that a student who is moved wouldn't then be targeted in their new school.

Two mothers, both leaders in a grassroots advocacy group called Common Ground, also spoke against the bill.

"Frankly, we're just not falling for this one," said Marie-Claire Leman, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Tallahassee. "We don't believe that it's about bullying. We believe it's a thinly-veiled attempt to expand the source of funding for vouchers and to further privatize education."

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the bill's sponsor, said there are existing measures to help schools deal with bullies but this bill gives families options so a student isn't "trapped" in a place where they struggle to focus.

"As so often happens in the legislative process, you address one side of the equation and everybody piles onto the other side of the equation,” he said. “To put all the emphasis on one side, saying you don’t want to give restitution to victims, instead we want to give stiffer penalties to the offender, it doesn’t work that way. You have to have both sides.”

The committee also passed SB1434, a bill that started out as a measure to provide funding for school mental health programs but has since expanded to become an expansive package. Among the new issues it addresses is preventing "personal enrichment" in charter funding, after reports emerged of some charters fraudulently billing publicly funded schools to make a profit.

The bill would also make substantial changes to the Schools of Hope program, including: granting vouchers so students in low-performing district schools could move to private ones, removing the cap of low-performing schools that can get turnaround funding, allowing charters to take over the buildings of closed district schools and creating a "franchise" system for excelling principals to oversee more than one campus.

"I happened to like the bill a lot more when it was dealing simply with mental health assistance," said Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Lauderhill, who voted against it.

January 17, 2018

Schools of Hope moves forward to allow charters near struggling district schools

Commissioner Pam Stewart SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Florida Board of Education unanimously approved a rule on Wednesday opening the door for private nonprofits to apply to receive millions in state funding to operate charter schools near low-performing public schools, called “Schools of Hope.”


The rule establishes a process for a nonprofit group to become an operator of the charter schools.

The “Schools of Hope” program was passed last year as part of the controversial school choice mega-bill HB7069, which several school districts are challenging in court.

The board also voted to grant an additional $2,000 per student to 14 struggling district schools through the “Schools of Hope” program, adding to the 11 that were already selected in November.

During the meeting, a teacher from Gadsden County told the board that she was concerned about charter schools poaching teachers away from public schools with the promise of higher salaries.

“If you pay teachers well you won’t need all of these Schools of Hope,” said Judith Mandela, who teaches middle school math and is the vice president of her local teacher’s union. “A teacher left my district yesterday solely because his salary was extremely low.”

Commissioner Pam Stewart said after the meeting that local districts have the power to set their own teacher salaries to be competitive with charter schools and that state board is against a statewide minimum because of the diverse standards of living in Florida.

“It is in statute to provide differentiated pay so those districts with low-performing schools can in fact offer teachers more money for serving in those lower-performing schools it’s a great way to actually lure teachers,” she said.

October 12, 2017

House Republicans unveil concept for helping bullied, abused students with ‘Hope’ vouchers

Corcoran and ed chairmen 101117


Children in Florida’s K-12 public schools who have been victimized by bullying, assault or other violent trauma will have a new option to change schools — including an incentive to leave the public school system for a private alternative — under an initiative announced Wednesday by House Republicans.

House leaders won’t have specific legislation available for at least another month for the school choice program they’re proposing as a “Hope Scholarship,” but their announcement sets the stage for a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran in the 2018 session.

Many of the details are still being ironed out — including how much tax money would be diverted to fund the program, which Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, says he envisions “would be funded very similarly to the [Florida] Tax Credit Scholarship.”

The tax credit scholarship is a controversial, voucher-like program that traditional public school advocates argue takes taxpayer money away from public education.

Businesses get a tax break in exchange for funding scholarships that help 100,000 poor — and often minority — children afford a private school education. The money is funneled directly through designated “scholarship organizations,” so it never passes through the state’s hands as “taxpayer” money.

Citing data from the Florida Department of Education, House Republicans said more than 47,000 incidents of violence were reported in the 2015-16 school year involving children in the K-12 public school system — acts that included hazing, fighting, threats and bullying.

“We know from all of the studies that, if you’re fearful of stepping on to a school campus, if you’re worried for your own safety — you will not learn,” Corcoran said, when he announced the proposal during a press conference Wednesday at the Capitol flanked by six of his top lieutenants in charge of education policy and funding.

Full story here.

Photo credit: House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, announced on Oct. 11 a new “Hope Scholarship” proposal to help public schoolchildren who are victims of bullying, assault or other trauma to attend a different school of their choice. Joining Corcoran were his top lieutenants on education policy and spending, from left: Republican Reps. Jake Raburn of Lithia, Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, Chris Latvala of Clearwater, Michael Bileca of Miami, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Byron Donalds of Naples. [Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times]