March 18, 2016

Direct funding for after-school programs intact, despite Senate's push for competitive grant



How Florida gives state money to organizations that provide after-school care, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs, won’t change anytime soon.

The 2016-17 budget that Gov. Rick Scott signed Thursday maintains a decades-old funding structure that designates money to a handful of prominent organizations — which means an ambitious, but controversial, reform plan pitched by Republican Senate leaders is on hold for at least another year.

Administrators of affected groups said they are glad lawmakers didn’t embrace the Senate’s idea to create a competitive grant process this year. The proposed program — introduced midway through the nine-week session — would have included several million dollars more in available aid, but it would’ve made many more non-profits eligible for a single pot of money.

Traditional programs opposed creating a competitive grant on such short notice, fearing it would have caused their funding to, at best, be interrupted or, at worst, be cut. The taxpayer aid helps pay for homework assistance, mentoring and gang-prevention services for children and teens often living in Florida’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

More here.

Photo credit: House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media on Sunday, March 6, 2016, after a budget conference meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER / Tampa Bay Times

March 14, 2016

Florida 2016 legislative elections 'our opportunity,' FEA president McCall says

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall has big ambitions for the state's 2016 legislative elections.

Many lawmakers who have been unfriendly to the teacher union's view of public education will depart, while others face more realistic challenges than they have in the past. It's a chance, McCall said, to begin changing the complexion of Tallahassee education politics.

"The message I'm sending to all my members is, this is our opportunity," she said. "Fair Districts has given us just that, fairer districts where people can actually compete."

FEA officials are analyzing the newly drawn state Senate map, with an eye toward targeting districts where it sees the possibility of influencing the outcome, supporting "people that can win and won't forget why they came to Tallahassee."

Campaigns can be costly and demanding, McCall acknowledged, and the organization wants to be effective and strategic in its efforts. It isn't likely to jump into races where its type of candidate has no chance, she said, because that's just not worth the effort. The FEA also will have to work to get out the vote, she added.

"We have an opportunity to change the debate in this state," McCall said. "I think we'll see a different kind of Tallahassee each and every year."

Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee



A Tallahassee judge heard opening arguments this morning in a month-long civil trial that could up-end Florida's entire education system.

Attorneys representing Citizens for Strong Schools want Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III to declare that the Florida Department of Education -- and by extension, the Florida Legislature -- has failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated "paramount duty" to provide a "high quality" education for all public school students.

A constitutional amendment in 1998 requires the state to make "adequate provision(s) ... for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

Attorneys for the advocacy group argue the state hasn't done that, citing -- among other complaints -- the lack of parity in student achievement for minority students in Florida public schools.

But attorneys for the Department of Education and the Legislature counter that, while there's still more work to be done, Florida's education system has come a long way in the past 20 years.

The two sides started laying out their arguments today in the non-jury trial, which is expected to last five weeks and include expert witnesses such as current Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

In lambasting Florida's education system, the plaintiff's lead attorney Neil Chonin decried Florida's controversial and high-stakes "accountability" framework, which includes using the results of students' standardized exams to, in part, determine student retention, teacher evaluations and school grades.

Continue reading "Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee" »

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.