March 14, 2016

Might Florida 'Best and Brightest' bonus renewal face legal challenge?

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Despite strong opposition by some Florida senators, the state Legislature approved a second year of the controversial Best and Brightest bonus that rewards teachers, in part, for their ACT or SAT scores of long ago.

Some key naysayers, including outgoing Sen. John Legg, criticized the action. Legg challenged the placement of Best and Brightest in the budget implementing bill, arguing the courts have said substantive policy that hadn't been approved otherwise did not belong in the appropriations act.

"I believe this Legislature has not has an opportunity to weigh in," Legg told his colleagues. "The process is circumvented by putting it in the implementing bill."

Appropriations chairman Sen. Tom Lee contended that there wasn't a problem, because the $49 million for the program appeared in the actual budget, and the implementing language simply commemorated the money. Calling it a symbolic victory for House supporters, Lee noted that the language would disappear if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the expense.

The bonus has a "one year life span," he said. "We will have to come back and get our head around the continuation of Best and Brightest."

That debate, though, has led to a broader conversation about whether lawmakers went too far in legislating through the budget. Several organizations are talking about how to proceed if the governor leaves Best and Brightest in the budget, said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who often represents the Florida Education Association and the school boards association.

"Sen. Legg's debate brought out ... that this is another classic example of logrolling," Meyer said.

Such moves have been found inconsistent with the Florida Constitution, he said. The constitution states that all laws "shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title."

In Brown vs. Firestone (1980) the state Supreme Court wrote, "Were we to sanction a rule permitting an appropriations bill to change existing law, the legislature would in many instances be able to logroll, and in every instance the integrity of the legislative process would be compromised."

The question becomes whether what happened with Best and Brightest fits the definitions that Legg put forth, or those suggested by Lee. Getting an answer would depend on a lawsuit being filed, and so far it's all just talk.

Legg said he would suspect a suit if Scott does not veto the provision. Meyer said the taxpayer who might consider filing would have to balance the principle at stake and the value of everything else in the bill, which also would be challenged.

March 12, 2016

Florida lawmakers OK principal autonomy program for 7 school districts


Select principals in seven Florida school districts -- including Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas -- could soon have more power to oversee operations at low-performing public schools.

In one of its final votes on the last day of the 2016 session, the Legislature gave final, bipartisan approval to HB 287, which creates the three-year "Principal Autonomy Pilot Program Initiative."

The program aims to give principals at some failing schools more say over staff assignments and program funding.

Republicans Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, and Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, and Chris Sprowls, of Palm Harbor, sponsored the legislation with the goal of trying a new way to improve student performance and school operations at failing schools.

The other four school districts eligible to participate are Duval, Jefferson, Madison and Seminole counties. 

Districts have to seek approval from the state board to engage in the program -- by identifying three schools that received grades of "D" or "F" in two of the past three years and offering a plan of how "highly effective" principals assigned to those schools could better allocate resources.

Senators passed the bill by a 36-4 vote on Friday, about an hour before ending the 2016 session. Those opposed were Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate Democratic leader.

The House passed it in mid-February by a 97-17 vote. Those opposed in the House were also some of the chamber's Democrats.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.

The annual budget lawmakers also approved late Friday includes $910,000 to fund the pilot program. Of that, $700,000 is a one-time allocation.

These major education proposals failed to pass the Florida Legislature this year


Despite getting various levels of momentum this session, many high-profile education proposals -- such as allowing computer coding to count as a foreign language -- failed to cross the finish line during the 2016 session.

Here's a round-up of some major education-related proposals that failed to pass the Florida Legislature this year:

-- Computer coding (HB 887/SB 468): The measure -- spearheaded by former Yahoo executive and Broward County Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- cleared the Senate and was poised to be taken up in the House, but that final vote never came. The proposal faced opposition from civil rights groups and Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who didn't agree that computer coding should be an alternative to traditional foreign languages.

-- "Best & Brightest" teacher bonuses (HB 7043/SB 978): Attempts to permanently enact the policy -- which awards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores -- in state law faltered because of opposition in the Senate. However, the bonuses will still be funded with $49 million for another school year, as a compromise to the House. Education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Friday that returning lawmakers next year can further vet the policy and, with two years of data then, they can compare year-to-year gains in student and teacher performance.

-- Alternative testing (SB 1360): Gaetz's plan to allow school districts and parents to choose alternative standardized tests for their students in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments was ambitious from the start. Gaetz never had a House companion to his bill, which is a necessity for proposals to have a chance at becoming law. The bill was scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on this week, but Gaetz pulled it -- acknowledging its defeat. He said, though, that he hoped it sent a symbolic message that this issue was important for the Senate and that lawmakers should explore it again next year.

-- Charter school authorizer (HJR 759/SJR 976): Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, sought to put on 2016 statewide ballot a constitutional amendment that would create a statewide body to authorize, operate, control and supervise all charter schools. School district officials feared it would take away local-decision making from county school boards, and the League of Women Voters also vocally opposed the concept. The measure stalled in Senate committees; it passed all House committees but wasn't taken up on the floor.

-- City school districts (HJR 539/SJR 734): This proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers -- to allow cities to break away from county school districts and establish their own -- stalled in committee. The House held a workshop discussion on it, but it was never even considered in the Senate.

-- School recess (HB 833/SB 1002): Passionate, self-proclaimed "recess moms" pleaded with lawmakers to pass this proposal this session. It would have required elementary schools to offer 20 minutes of recess each school day. They had near-unanimous support in the House but were stonewalled in the Senate, when Education Pre-K-12 Chairman Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, refused to consider the proposal in committee. The Senate sponsor, Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays, attempted a last-ditch effort to get it tacked on to another bill, but he was blocked by a procedural vote on the Senate floor.

-- Elected education commissioner (HB 767/SB 942): Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, proposed changing the Florida Constitution to make the statewide education policymaker an elected position again. Garcia's bill got unanimous approval in one Senate committee, but Mayfield's bill wasn't taken up. House K-12 Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said she felt the proposal was one that the upcoming Constitutional Revision Commission should explore.

-- Reading instruction (HB 7021): Adkins' spearheaded this measure through the House to improve instruction and early-intervention strategies for elementary school students who struggle to read, such as those who have dyslexia. It passed the House and had some consideration in the Senate. The House tried to add it to a massive education bill with two days left in session, but it ultimately wasn't included.

*This post has been corrected. The principal autonomy bill (HB 287) did pass late on Friday afternoon before session ended.


March 11, 2016

Lawmakers pass massive 'school choice' bill after late negotiations over charter schools


Florida lawmakers struck a compromise Friday to pass a sweeping "school choice" education package that includes significant changes to how the state's 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.

As part of a last-minute deal, the House rejected efforts by the Senate to crack down on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

The Senate gave up on its plan to ban "private enrichment" in trade for the House accepting a revised formula that weights capital funding in favor of charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities -- which was, in part, what charter schools were intended for when they were established in the 1990s.

But Democrats in both chambers blasted House Republicans for not agreeing to a "legitimate" solution to safeguard public money given to charter schools and to ensure the schools aren't used as a means to line business-owners' pockets.

"This is very bad and the lack of accountability is really amazing," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. "There are some good charter schools -- they’re engaging in innovation -- but many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except plundering the public treasury."

An Associated Press analysis a few months ago found that, since 2000, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding given to charter schools that later closed.

How charter schools are eligible for state capital funding was a sticking point of House Bill 7029, which House and Senate leaders negotiated well into early Friday afternoon -- the last scheduled day of the 2016 legislative session.

The bill has been revised multiple times within the past couple weeks, with re-writes ballooning the bill to, at one point Thursday, 168 pages.

The Senate passed the final version by a 29-10 vote. The House then passed it by a 82-33 vote. Both votes were mostly along party lines.

The multi-faceted bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.

The package also includes measures limiting school districts' spending on capital projects, allowing open enrollment for all K-12 public school students, granting immediate eligibility for high school athletes who transfer schools, and codifying public college and university performance funding in state law, among a dozen other policy proposals.

Continue reading "Lawmakers pass massive 'school choice' bill after late negotiations over charter schools" »

March 10, 2016

Florida Legislature approves competency-based education pilot program


Florida lawmakers have approved a new pilot program to test competency-based education at public schools in four Florida counties.

HB 1365 sets up the five-year program starting next school year in Pinellas, Palm Beach, Lake and Seminole counties, as well as at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott still needs to sign it into law.

The program seeks to let students advance through school if they can prove they've mastered what they should be learning.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the bill's sponsors, heralds it as "the future of education."

"I’m excited that Florida is taking the first step down that road of competency-based learning," he said.

However, critics fear that the program will "data-mine" students by collecting information on them, while also perpetuating a culture of standardized testing.

"This particular program puts us back into a space that we’re relying on a computer-based test," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said. "It sounds great but you have a situation where you have those who can make it and those who cannot because of their inability to function on a computer."

Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays -- who has been outspoken about the state education system's reliance on testing -- also opposed it.

"Many times we’re led into a trap by cute phrases that describe programs that have some underlying issues, and this is no exception to that," Hays said. "You need to watch very carefully the kind of data mining that's done, (and) how much information are they getting on that individual student. Sometimes it's nobody else’s business and certainly not the business of the public."

Several other Democrats said they support the program, because they want to see first whether it works.

"We don’t want unintended consequences, we don’t want children’s privacy invaded, we just want it done right," Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said.

The bill passed the Senate on Thursday, 31-6. Those who opposed it were Hays, Bullard and Republican Sens. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, Charlie Dean of Inverness and Travis Hutson, of Elkton.

It also passed the House last month, 100-13, with some opposition from Democrats.

The Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida's Future -- which lobbied for the program -- praised the Legislature for approving HB 1365.

"Rather than tailoring education to meet both the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, we force them to conform to a system in which they all are expected to master the same subjects in the same way and in the same amount of time," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque said in a statement. "Competency-based learning addresses this flaw by allowing students to progress at a personalized pace. ... This customized approach reduces boredom, frustration and failure.”

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


With less than two days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are furiously trying to pass policy bills through both chambers before the clock runs out. The Senate again starts daily work at 10 a.m., while the House convenes at noon.

Here's what we're watching today:

* The House and Senate will take questions on their 2016-17 budget proposal, in advance of Friday's expected vote.

* The Senate will take up two environmental bills. SB 1168 implements Amendment 1 (the land and water conservation amendment approved by voters in 2014) and establishes a dedicated funding source for Everglades restoration. The chamber will also take up SB 1290, giving state regulators more flexibility over state lands.

* Gov. Rick Scott must act on more than two dozen bills by today, including allowing disabled vets with identifying license plates to park for free at airports, and removing the term "absentee ballot" from the statutes and replacing it with the term "vote by mail ballot."

* The House could take up a massive education bill that the Senate passed Wednesday.

* The Senate is slated to consider a proposal to allow other standardized exams for K-12 public school students, like the SAT or Advanced Placement courses, as an alternative to the Florida Standards Assessments.

March 09, 2016

Law that helps Miami-Dade schools by fixing tax collection shortfalls heads to Gov. Scott

@ByKristenMClark and @cveiga

A proposed law that cleared the Florida Legislature on Wednesday should give local government entities -- such as Miami-Dade Public Schools -- faster access to their tax revenue and the ability to more accurately plan their annual budgets.

Officials with the Miami-Dade school district have, for years, complained that lengthy delays in tax collection short-change public schools by millions of dollars in funding.

And they finally have a solution that's a step away from becoming law.

HB 499 unanimously passed both the House and Senate on Wednesday and now awaits Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The measure -- led by Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Rep. Bryan Avila, of Hialeah -- reforms statewide the process for resolving property tax disputes, which are heard by county Value Adjustment Boards.

It puts limits on when property owners' appeals need to be resolved, and it requires the boards to complete all appeals and certify property values with the county appraiser no later than June 1.

Flores said the provisions "speed up and modernize that process, so hopefully entities such as our school system and our public school students will receive the money they deserve in a timely matter."

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and other district officials traveled to Tallahassee at least twice this session to testify in favor of the bill when it was vetted by legislative committees.

"We're finally going to have legislative protection that will ensure equity in funding for Miami-Dade's children," Carvalho said Wednesday in Miami.

Carvalho and school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman both said they were "appreciative" of Avila, Flores and the rest of the Miami-Dade delegation for navigating the bill through the legislative process. 

"This was a very big priority for the board," Hantman said. 

The district's fight over property tax appeals has been years-long and contentious.

The district audited the local value adjustment board, refused to pay a $1.5 million bill to the property appraiser and threatened to sue over the issue. United Teachers of Dade, the local union, did sue -- but a judge dismissed the complaint.

Carvalho said the district will now pay close attention to how the bill is implemented in Miami-Dade.

"Everything is in place to solve the problem. With every law that's passed in Tallahassee, it is about the execution. And fidelity as far as execution will be key," Carvalho said.

FEA blasts Florida Senate for agreeing to 'Best & Brightest' extension, urges Scott to veto


The state's largest teachers union has some harsh words for the Florida Senate, after Republican leaders agreed this week to compromise with the House and continue funding a controversial teacher bonus program for another year.

"The public should be outraged and Senate leaders should be ashamed," Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a statement today. "This flies in the face of democratic principles."

The final state budget proposal that lawmakers will vote on on Friday includes $49 million in 2016-17 to reward “highly effective” teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in what's known as the "Best & Brightest" program.

The full Senate has never voted on the policy, although several members wanted that opportunity this session. It's the second year in a row that the bonuses have been authorized solely through budget language.

The Florida Education Association, which represents more than 140,000 teachers and education professionals, has long opposed the program. The union is challenging it, arguing it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

About 5,200 teachers of the state’s nearly 172,000 teachers qualified this year.

“The Florida Senate is shoving 'Best and Brightest' down our throats,” McCall said. "The point of bills, committees and votes is so that statewide policy that impacts Floridians is thoroughly vetted and transparently scrutinized."

Many Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate had voiced concerns for the past couple weeks, fearing Republican leaders might agree to keep funding "Best & Brightest" although the Senate hadn't approved the policy.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called the program "the worst and dumbest," and Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said last week Senate leaders' decision “empowers the Senate leadership over the Senate members and it looks like they’re siding with the House members more than Senate members.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, defended the decision, saying the budget process is about negotiation and compromise. He said some of the Senate's priorities were met, so they agreed to support "Best & Brightest" as a priority of the House.

McCall said, "This is not Florida in the sunshine; it is Florida in a smoky back room."

"We hope Gov. Rick Scott will stand up for public education and veto the program when he receives the budget," the FEA said.

With minimal debate, sweeping education bill passes Florida Senate


A wide-ranging education bill with more than a dozen significant policy proposals passed the Florida Senate this afternoon after minimal or zero debate on some of the measure's most consequential aspects.

HB 7029 deals with capital funding, charter schools, open enrollment in K-12 schools, high school athletics and higher education funding, among other areas.

Senators passed it 28-12, with Democratic Sens. Bill Montford, of Tallahassee, and Jeremy Ring, of Margate, joining the Republican majority in support. All other Democrats were opposed.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has spearheaded the bill through two major re-writes in the Senate during the final weeks of session. The legislation combines several pending bills that were either vetted in committee or have already passed the House.

The Senate's approved version now goes to the House for an up-or-down vote in the remaining two days of session.

Continue reading "With minimal debate, sweeping education bill passes Florida Senate" »

March 08, 2016

Tom Grady confirmed to Florida State Board of Education

IMG_GRADY.JPG_6_1_U335J022 (1)


The Florida Senate this morning confirmed a former state lawmaker and former interim president of Citizens Insurance to the State Board of Education.

Tom Grady has been serving on the board since late last year, after Republican Gov. Rick Scott, a close friend, appointed him to a vacant seat last fall. His appointment was subject to the Senate's approval.

Grady's appointment was approved Tuesday unanimously en masse with 15 other education-related appointments. In such cases, senators have the option to record with the Senate secretary a "no" vote on any individual appointee.

Grady, a 57-year-old wealthy securities lawyer from Naples, most recently served on the Florida Gulf Coast University board of trustees, also as a Scott appointee.

In the 1990s, Grady was a director of the Collier County Education Foundation. He served one term in the Florida House from 2008 to 2010.

Grady sparked controversy for his hefty travel spending during his brief tenure in 2012 as interim president of Citizens Property Insurance.

In less than two months overseeing the state-run provider, he spent nearly $10,000 on expensive hotel rooms, airplane trips, a limo ride and a three-night stay in Bermuda. Grady defended the spending, saying he was actually “very frugal.” He lost the permanent job to a Maryland insurance executive, amid questions raised by the Tampa Bay Times about his spending habits. He returned to the private sector.

Grady's term on the State Board of Education ends on Dec. 31, 2018.

Photo credit: Gov. Rick Scott, right, greets Tom Grady during the Aug. 2, 2011 Cabinet meeting in which Grady was appointed head of Financial Regulation. Bill Cotterell / Tallahassee Democrat