January 25, 2016

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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January 19, 2016

Thousands rally in Tallahassee urging teachers' union to 'drop the suit'

Voucher rally


Several thousand parents and children rallied in Florida’s capital on Tuesday to urge the state’s largest teachers union to drop a lawsuit challenging a controversial voucher-like education program that benefits low-income families.

Martin Luther King III joined several religious and community leaders in praising the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which they say affords opportunities many families wouldn’t otherwise have, and they urged the Florida Education Association to end its “misguided” effort to halt the program.

Critics — led by the FEA — argue the tax-credit scholarships divert state money away from a quality public education system the state is required, under the Constitution, to provide.

The 15-year-old state program helps low-income families afford to send their children to private schools by giving dollar-for-dollar tax credits — as much as $447 million this year, growing to $560 million in 2016-17 — to businesses that donate to organizations that fund the scholarships. Almost all of the scholarship money is facilitated by Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students.

“This is about justice; this is about righteousness,” said King, eldest son of the late civil rights leader whose namesake annual federal holiday was Monday. “This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child.”

Organizers for the rally — which included the “Save Our Scholarships Coalition” and various other school-choice advocacy groups — called the "historic" event the largest school choice rally ever in Florida and one of the largest in the country. They said 10,500 people attended, with 240 busloads coming from all over the state — including three dozen buses from South Florida and about 30 from the Tampa Bay area.

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January 14, 2016

Florida Senate moves ahead with "choice in sports" proposal


A sweeping proposal to bring "school choice" to Florida high school athletics and other extracurricular activities passed its first Senate committee Thursday, despite concerns that it could encourage rampant recruiting of student-athletes.

Senate Bill 684 -- approved unanimously by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- builds on lawmakers' efforts in recent years to grant more flexibility for student-athletes so they can participate in programs immediately when they transfer schools.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland -- who's spearheading the legislation with Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz -- said student-athletes should have the same right as any other student who participates in extracurricular activities to transfer to whatever school of their choice and be immediately eligible to participate in school activities.

The current limitation requires transfer students to wait until the next sports season before participating in sports. It stems from a rule by the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state-designated governing body for high school athletics.

Although the FHSAA supports Stargel and Gaetz's legislation, some athletics officials in Florida disagree with lawmakers about allowing immediate eligibility, especially without geographic limitations. They worry the proposal will legitimize abuses that are already occurring, such as students shopping for top programs or being recruited.

To "dispel" those fears, the legislation includes harsh penalties for coaches and school officials who recruit student-athletes. It calls for a $5,000 fine for the first offense, the fine and a one-year's suspension from coaching for the second offense, and the fine and the loss of their teaching license for the third offense.

"To provide more of a choice in athletics, we wanted to make sure that recruiting carried a very heavy penalty," Gaetz said.

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Florida teachers: 'Enough is enough' with state education system



More than 2,000 educators across Florida rallied at the state Capitol on Thursday to protest high-stakes testing, for-profit charter schools and other statewide education policies they feel are harming students and de-valuing classroom teachers.

With repeated chants of "enough is enough," the crowd filled much of the plaza between the old and new Florida capitols to let lawmakers in the rooms above know of their discontent.

"The biggest thing I want: I want politicians out of the classroom," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union, which organized the rally. "We want them to listen -- really listen -- to what we have to say."

McCall lambasted the Republican-led Legislature for "the practice of blaming and shaming teachers" and called for an overhaul of the state's education accountability system, where students' performance on the new Florida Standards Assessments is used to decide school grades and evaluate teachers.


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