April 02, 2015

Charter school bill in advances in Senate with some changes

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, wasn't able to stop the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee from moving forward with a proposed Institute for Charter School Innovation.

He couldn't convince them to create an Institute for Public School Innovation, either.

But he was able to remove a provision from the Senate's charter school bill (SB 1552) that would have allowed certain out-of-state operators to be deemed high-performing charter school systems -- and pay smaller administrative fees to their schools districts.

"It seems irresponsible to give out-of-state charter school provides a free pass based on their track records in other states," he said.

His amendment passed 4-2, with the support of Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg and Senate Rules Committee Chairman David Simmons.

Legg, who helped draft the language about high-performing charter school systems, said the designation was meant to be a "reward for existing charter schools."

"It was not designed to entice charter to come to the state," he said.

The broader bill moved out of the committee by a 5-2 vote.

In addition to creating the charter school institute, SB 1552 allows parents to send their children to any school in the state that has space. Parents would have to pay for transportation.

"This is definitely a parent-driven bill," said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

The two Democrats on the panel voted against the proposal. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said senators should consider trying to fund the transportation so families would have more options regardless of their income level.

Do school uniforms improve safety? PolitiFact Florida checks the research

More Florida school districts may soon have millions of reasons to start requiring students to wear uniforms, thanks to a bill that just passed the House.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, sponsored a bill that would give districts $10 per child to adopt standard attire policies in kindergarten through eighth grade. The state would set aside $10 million in all from the general revenue fund. Similar provisions have been amended to a school bill in the Senate, although without the cash incentive.

Adkins said that school uniforms help create a positive learning environment, because it removes distractions. She cited testimony from officials from five Florida school districts that raved about their uniform policies.

"They were all saying the same thing, and that is when they implemented a school uniform policy in their schools, the climate, the culture at their schools improved,"Adkins said. "It's an issue of school safety, helps with school truancy."

The House passed the bill 102-8 on March 27, but we were curious whether requiring students to dress the same really did improve school safety and truancy records. Turns out the research is anything but uniform. See what Joshua Gillin of PolitiFact Florida found.

Senate moves to temporarily suspend school grades

The Florida Senate took a critical step Wednesday toward temporarily suspending school grades in response to the outcry statewide among parents, teachers and superintendents who want a smoother transition as the state shifts to new standards and tests.

The Senate added a provision to its sweeping testing bill (SB 616) that would require an independent review of the new Florida Standards Assessments. The proposal says the results of this year’s tests cannot be used for school grades or teacher evaluations until the review is complete.

"We will rely upon this year’s assessments if and only if they have been deemed valid and reliable," former Senate President Don Gaetz said.

That wasn't the only change the Senate made to the testing bill. Senators also added a provision allowing school districts to start classes as early as Aug. 10.

More here.

March 31, 2015

South Florida students celebrate STEM day at the Florida Capitol

Students from five South Florida high schools dazzled lawmakers with their robotics skills Tuesday.

It was part of a celebration of STEM education. (That's science, technology, engineering and math, if you've been living under a rock.)

Joining the students: Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and Department of Economic Opportunity Director Jesse Panuccio.

"Florida is laser-focused on being a global leader for jobs and a critical component of that must be the development of a talented workforce," Lopez-Cantera said. "We are proud of the work our students are doing to learn about what it takes to compete in today's global economy."

The students came from TERRA Environmental Research Institute in Miami-Dade, Western High School in Davie, NOVA High School in Davie, West Broward High School in Pembroke Pines, and North Broward Preparatory School in Coconut Creek. They belong to teams participating in the FIRST Robotics national competition.

Patrick Hermes, who directs the Northwest Florida Regional Tournament for FIRST, said the teens were gaining skills that would help them in the workforce.

"Today they are competing in robotics competitions," he said. "But tomorrow they will be using this technology for the greater good, helping to improve healthcare, transportation, and even our nation's space program."

Tuesday's celebration was sponsored by Florida FIRST Robotics and the Motorola Solutions Foundation, which has invested nearly $2 million in STEM-related education in Florida since 2007.

School guns bill suffers setback in Florida Senate

A contentious proposal that would let designated teachers bring their guns to school suffered a serious setback Tuesday when a Senate panel declined to vote on it.

Because the Senate Education Committee won't meet again, the bill (SB 180) won't have another opportunity for a committee hearing. It could still be incorporated into another proposal, but Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg said he would raise strong objections.

"It would be a large lift knowing that the Education Committee [deferred] it," the Trinity Republican said.

Legg said he has "significant concerns" with the bill, which would allow school employees with law enforcement or military experience to carry concealed weapons on school property.

"Deputizing private citizens to protect a school is not an avenue I want to go down," he said.

Both the Senate and House are considering a separate proposal that would allow permitted individuals to carry concealed weapons on college campuses (SB 176/ HB 4005).

The so-called campus carry bill has found support in both chambers. Legg says he supports the proposal because it is about "individual protection."

But college presidents and police chiefs say the campus carry bill is just as dangerous as its K-12 counterpart. And on Tuesday, the non-profit Everytown for Gun Safety and the Florida Chapter of Moms Demand Action released a poll showing 61 percent of Floridians oppose allowing concealed weapons on college campuses.

"We already know campus police, college presidents, faculty, and students stand against this legislation," said Chryl Anderson, a volunteer with Moms Demand Action. "This is more evidence that the legislators who support these dangerous bills are out of touch with what Floridians really want."

March 27, 2015

Florida House approves construction money for charter schools

Without a word of debate Friday, the Florida House approved a controversial proposal that could require school districts to share tens of millions of dollars in construction funds with rival charter schools.

The bill was one of four high-profile education proposals that won the support of the Republican-dominated House. The others would:

* Ease the penalties for schools that fail to comply with the Constitutionally-mandated limits on class size;

* Create a pilot program to give principals more control over hiring and budget decisions; and

* Encourage school districts to adopt mandatory school uniform policies for children in grades K-8 by offering incentive money.

All of the Democrats in attendance voted against the charter school bill (HB 7037). But none debated the measure on the floor.

More here.

Jeb Bush's claim about Florida's achievement gap

In his first foray into New Hampshire as a potential Republican presidential contender, former Gov. Jeb Bush talked up Florida’s record on education during his tenure.

Bush, who was governor between 1999 and  2007, talked about how the state stopped automatically moving up third-graders to fourth grade if they weren’t deemed ready. (The old approach has sometimes been called "social promotion.") And he also touted that during his tenure Florida started the state’s voluntary prekindergarten program.

Such policies paid off, Bush said.

"We had significant gains, particularly with kids in poverty," Bush said at a business roundtable in Hudson, N.H., March 13. "Florida continues to be one of the states that does the best with low-income kids, and we are one of the few states that has actually had a narrowing of the achievement gap based on income, or based on race or ethnicity."

Is Bush correct that Florida is one of the few states that narrowed the achievement gap for minorities and the poor? PolitiFact Florida took a closer look and here is Bush's full Truth-O-Meter record.

March 25, 2015

Florida Senate finds compromise on student testing

Florida lawmakers may have found a middle ground on the controversial subject of student testing.

A Senate panel tweaked its testing bill Wednesday so that the results of this year’s Florida Standards Assessments would not be used to determine whether third-grade students can be promoted to the fourth grade, or high-school students can graduate until an independent review of the exam is conducted.

The amendment was intended to be a compromise between Republican lawmakers who have vowed not to retreat on school accountability, and the parents and educators who have asked for a pause while Florida transitions to new academic standards and assessments. Their outcry has only grown louder since the state botched the roll-out of the online writing exams earlier this month.

"We want to do two things," said Senate Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who proposed the amendment. "We want to make sure students are being tested but not overtested, and whatever test instrument is used is reliable and valid."

The change led the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve the bill in a 15-1 vote. But it failed to win over the teachers union and some parents, who said the new language should have also prevented this year’s test scores from being used to determine teacher pay and school grades.

"It doesn't seem to be saving students from the high-stakes decisions," said Karen Effrem, of the Florida Stop Common Core Coalition.

Read more here.

Senate Medicaid expansion plan inches forward

A third panel approved the Senate's proposed alternative to Medicaid expansion.

But things got dicey Wednesday when the Senate Appropriations Committee discussed the bill (SB 7044).

As Health Policy Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, walked his colleagues through the proposal, several powerful senators became engaged in intense side conversations. The discussions grew so large that the committee went into an impromptu recess.

Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, later explained that some members had expressed concerns because the plan would put some beneficiaries into Medicaid Managed Care plans temporarily until the state creates a new private health insurance marketplace.

"The options before us were to temporarily pass the bill while we worked through it and got people involved, or try to draft changes on the fly," Lee said.

Ultimately, Senate leaders decided to move forward with the plan before them, which would expand access to health care insurance to nearly one million poor Floridians. Beneficiaries would be required to pay small monthly premiums, as well as meet a work requirement.

Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called the proposal a "major step forward toward solving a significant problem that is facing the state of the Florida and the nation."

Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Miami, urged his fellow colleagues to "let Washington know that we are serious about taking care of our residents in the state of Florida."

"Let's not get caught up in some of the politics associated with this," he said.

The meeting wasn’t entirely a love fest.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, noted the shortage of primary-care physicians in Florida, and said the state healthcare system "does not have the capacity to treat a million new patients."

"I've got to believe you are setting yourself up for failure," Hays said.

But he, too, voted in favor of the plan.

The controversial bill is now headed to the Senate Floor.

Bean acknowledged that there was still "a long way to go." The House has said it won't consider the proposal, and it would need to win approval from the federal government.

Still, Bean was optimistic. "By sticking together, we can do a lot of great things for Florida and its citizens," he said.

March 24, 2015

Report calls for more need-based financial aid

There's been a lot of talk about college affordability in the early days of the legislative session.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott has made the issue a top priority -- and is pushing both a textbook tax cut and legislation that would prohibit universities from raising graduate-school tuition.

On Monday, the Senate Higher Education Committee approved a proposal by Sen Anitere Flores, R-Miami, that would accomplish those goals and require colleges and universities to publish the cost of each course before the semester begins (SB 938). The House Higher Education and Workforce Subcommittee is scheduled to take up a similar proposal on Wednesday.

But a national non-profit organization says there is still work to be done.

A report issued Tuesday by the Young Invincibles showed that tuition at Florida's four-year public institutions had grown by 67 percent since 2007, "the second highest increase in the country during that time period." 

The report also noted that funding for Bright Futures Scholarships had dipped in recent years as lawmakers raised the standards the awards -- and that universities had asked for an additional $45 million to provide scholarships for low-income students.

The organization called on Florida lawmakers to spend an additional $90 million on need-based financial aid in 2015.

"We share Governor Scott's and the Florida Legislature's commitment to making college more affordable," Young Invincibles Policy and Research Manager Tom Allison said in a statement. "But we have to spend our limited resources efficiently. To do that, we need to target aid to students who wouldn't go to college without the aid."

The House budget proposal calls for a $6.7 million increase in need-based financial aid.