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.

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March 08, 2016

Tom Grady confirmed to Florida State Board of Education

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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

March 07, 2016

Sen. Detert stands by previous vote on teacher bonus program although it's 'worst & dumbest'


In defending their decision to put the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonuses into the annual state budget again, Republican Senate leaders argue that the controversial program "was heard" in the Senate this year, as members wanted.

There were a few informal discussions, but the only vote cast (so far) on the policy by itself was in January before the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- where it advanced by a single vote.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, was the deciding vote in that decision, which averted what could have been an early defeat for the contentious policy this session.

She said at the time, and again Monday, that she opposes the program but voted in favor of the bill then only to get it out of committee.

The program rewards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores -- an unproven correlation that most Democrats and some Republicans don't support.

Detert said Monday she wanted to "get it to the floor and have an open discussion about the substance of the bill itself. It's too bad we didn't get to that point."

"I would rather vote it down and kill it permanently, because it’s the worst and dumbest," Detert added, "but if they put it in the budget, I have no choice but to vote for the budget."

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Sweeping education bill - with capital funding reforms - ready for Senate vote on Monday



Florida senators are poised on Monday to vote on a wide-ranging education bill that includes numerous high-profile proposals -- including reforms for capital funding for traditional and charter schools, open enrollment for all Florida public school students, more accountability measures for charter schools, and immediate eligibility and recruiting penalties for 285,000 high school athletes.

A far more simple and narrow version of the bill (HB 7029) passed the House last month, but in the Senate, it was loaded up with amendments spearheaded by Sen. Don Gaetz, both in committee last week and on the floor Friday.

The version that senators will vote on Monday clocks in at 132 pages. Many of the proposals are included in bills that the Senate and House have either passed off the floor or considered in committee.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, on Friday added to the bill his plan for changing how traditional and charter schools receive capital funding from the state and how they can use that money.

The proposal bans charter schools from receiving capital dollars for "private enrichment," and it steers funding to charter schools that mostly serve impoverished students or those who have disabilities. School districts also could be penalized -- by losing state capital funding -- if they exceed a state-imposed cap on spending for construction and maintenance projects, unless the cost overruns were due to "extraordinary circumstances."

Gaetz's plan is a counter-proposal to a measure by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sought to rein in districts' "excessive" spending and change how charter schools qualify for capital dollars. The House has yet to consider Fresen's plan on the floor.

Gaetz's proposed capital funding reforms are also attached to a different wide-ranging education bill (SB 524) that the Senate postponed for the past three days of session. Indicating that bill might have stalled, Gaetz's re-writes to HB 7029 have included several duplicative policy changes that now appear in both bills.

One high-profile policy change that's not included in HB 7029: enacting in state law the "Best & Brightest" program that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores.

Despite opposition from Republican and Democratic senators who want a floor vote on the issue, House and Senate leaders are poised to extend it another year only through budget language.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Sunday "we are going to agree to fund it at some level."  The exact figure should be revealed Monday when Lee and Land O'Lakes Republican Rep. Richard Corcoran, the House appropriations chairman, announce publicly the differences they've settled in the Legislature's proposed education budget.

March 06, 2016

Lawmakers agree on $75 million each in capital aid for traditional schools, charter schools


Florida's 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools would each get a pot of $75 million in state funds next year to spend on construction and maintenance projects, under a budget agreement the House and Senate appropriations chairmen announced Sunday afternoon.

The figure -- about the same as what Republican Gov. Rick Scott had asked for -- is $25 million more for each set of schools than lawmakers allocated this year.

It's also a compromise between Republican leaders in the House and Senate from what each chamber originally sought. In their budgets, both the House and Senate wanted to keep capital funding for traditional public schools level at $50 million. For charters, the House wanted $90 million, while the Senate budgeted nothing.

"From our perspective, it was kind of a guiding principle that we ought to be doing for the public system what we're doing for the charter school system, and we ultimately agreed on a level for funding both," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.

"The reality is we're up from last year," added House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

The equal funding level is a victory for charter school advocates, who lobbied to get at least as much in capital dollars as traditional schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. Unlike district-run schools, charter schools often lease their facilities, rather than build them.

In a statement this evening, the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents more than 200,000 students, "thanks the Legislature for the increase of $25 million in dollars to fund the cost of school facilities."

Supporters of conventional public schools are likely to be somewhat disappointed, although they're set to get more money this year than last. They had urged lawmakers to make up for years of reduced funding, when state capital money to charter schools far outweighed what conventional schools received.

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March 04, 2016

Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise


As rank-and-file senators grow more worried that a controversial teacher bonus program could be slipped into the annual budget for the second year in a row, Senate President Andy Gardiner said this evening he endorses that approach as a possible "appropriate" compromise with the House.

"It was in the implementing bill last year. I think it’s an issue that’s very important to the speaker-designate (Rep. Richard Corcoran), and it’s not a new issue," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the "Best & Brightest" program that awards bonuses to "highly effective" teachers based on their high school SAT/ACT scores.

"Maybe that’s the compromise -– where instead of codifying it in statute in Senate Bill 524, it’s a one-year implementation," Gardiner said, referencing a massive education bill that includes permanently extending the bonuses.

"I think that might be appropriate, but I’ll leave that to the chairs to see if they want to do that," he said.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, are still negotiating the 2016-17 budget in conference committee.

To the frustration of some of his fellow senators (Republicans and Democrats), Lee said earlier this week he "absolutely would" consider extending the teacher bonuses for another year through implementing language -- which was how the program was enacted last year. Lee said Corcoran "deserves some deference" on his priorities, as the Senate does their's.

When asked whether the Senate should grant an up-or-down vote to the controversial policy, Gardiner told reporters: "If it’s in the budget, there will be a floor vote."

Continue reading "Gardiner: Putting 'Best & Brightest' in budget again could be 'appropriate' compromise" »