February 07, 2017

Plan to count computer coding as foreign language earns easy win in 1st Senate committee

Brandes coding 020617


A revived proposal to let Florida high school students count computer coding as a foreign language looks to be on an easy path to pass the state Senate again this year.

Members of the Florida Senate Education Committee offered no questions or commentary on the proposal before voting unanimously to advance the measure out of its first committee on Monday, after hearing strong support from the business community and personal testimony from a Broward County middle-schooler and his mother.

The bill has only one other committee, Rules, to clear before it would reach the Senate floor for a final vote after the 2017 session begins March 7. House committees have yet to consider their version of the bill (HB 265).

Full story here.

Photo credit: Ethan Greenberg, a sixth-grader at Silver Trail Middle School in Pembroke Pines, poses for a photo with state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, while his mom, Ryann, looks on after a Senate Education Committee meeting Monday in Tallahassee. Ethan and Ryann Greenberg spoke in favor of Brandes’ proposal to make computer coding count as a foreign language for Florida high school students. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau


February 06, 2017

Debate rages again over whether coding should be a 'foreign language' in Florida schools


Miami businesswoman Elizabeth De Zulueta speaks English and Spanish. She knows some Italian and Russian, too.

She’s also a robotics engineer who knows how to code using technical training in computer science and electrical and mechanical engineering.

Having studied languages and coding, De Zulueta knows the value of both skills, and she can attest from her personal experience — while there are striking similarities in the mechanics of how each is learned — computer coding and foreign language are not the same.

“There are some essential parts of learning a foreign language that you’re not going to get from coding,” which derives from mathematics, said De Zulueta, who founded her own start-up robotics company, called Zulubots, in Miami-Dade’s Kendall area.

Yet some Florida lawmakers are again proposing an innovative, but contentious, plan that would put coding and foreign language on equal footing in a public high school student’s education.

More here.

Photo credit: Lourdes Masis

January 27, 2017

Florida House education chairman: Better civics lessons needed in schools

Bileca Diaz JMI_2 012617


Florida lawmakers could propose some changes this year in how public schools educate students about American government, history and the democratic system.

Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, the House Education Committee chairman, says the issue is "near and dear" to him, and his primary goal is to streamline civics education so it runs from elementary school through college.

"It's a conversation you'll hear a lot in the House," he said while speaking at a luncheon at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee on Thursday.

No specific policy has been presented yet, but Bileca said: "It's something that we're really looking at -- our civics, our history -- all the way from K-12 to our college system, on how do we really inculcate a sense of civic understanding, appreciation for our institutions and what a republic stands for and have a fully informed and fully educated citizenry that's able to participate in the democratic process."

Florida already requires civics classes for middle- and high-schoolers.

High school students need three credits in social studies in order to graduate. Those include mandatory courses in U.S. and world history, economics and U.S. government.

And in order to advance to high school, students in middle school need to complete "at least a one-semester civics education course that includes the roles and responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments; the structures and functions of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government; and the meaning and significance of historic documents, such as the Articles of Confederation, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution of the United States." That requirement was enacted just a few years ago.

But Bileca said he's looking for more "continuity of the importance of civics and understanding of history" across all grades.

"Something to look at there is the focus on history and civics and the foundational documents -- the Declaration of Independence, understanding the Constitution, the importance of separation of powers," he said. "These are good, basic frameworks and pillars of democracy that we want our kids by college and high school to be able to critically think about. ... Right now we're asking them to critically think about these systems of government that they know nothing about."

Photo credit: Miami Republican and Florida House education committee chairman Michael Bileca -- joined by state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah -- speaks during a luncheon at the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, Fla. on Jan. 26, 2017, in honor of National School Choice Week. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

January 26, 2017

2017 is chance 'for us to really blow open school choice opportunities,' GOP lawmakers say

Bileca Diaz JMI 012617


Ardent school choice supporters who are in charge of K-12 education policy and spending in the Florida House say 2017 is their year and they don't aim to waste it.

"It's a wonderful foundation that we've created in Florida" for school choice, House education committee chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said Thursday. "That foundation, we can't take for granted; that foundation is an envy of the rest of the country, where they point to us. It's incumbent upon us to understand and appreciate this platform but not be satisfied with it -- not be satisfied with incremental opportunities for our kids but really be focused on transformational opportunities."

House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, agreed: "What you're seeing right now is an opportunity for us to really blow open some of those school choice opportunities, blow open some of those opportunities that may be outside the box that everyone is always trying to block."

Bileca and Diaz were both featured speakers Thursday at a luncheon in honor of National School Choice Week put on by the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee, a public policy research organization that advocates for school choice education policies.

Diaz joked that it's not often he gets to speak to such an amenable crowd, since school choice remains such a polarizing issue in Florida. And he predicted "large opposition" ahead for future changes Florida House Republicans want to implement under the leadership of Speaker Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who himself is a passionate supporter of school choice.

"It always bothers somebody in the status quo and they always want to protect it and give you excuses why you can't do it," Diaz said. "But guess what? Those excuses are always about the institutions and the organizations and never about the kids and never about freedom and never about opportunity."

Continue reading "2017 is chance 'for us to really blow open school choice opportunities,' GOP lawmakers say" »

January 19, 2017

Miami teachers union protests Trump education secretary pick

via @KyraGurney

Dozens of Miami-Dade teachers joined more than 200 other teacher unions across the country Thursday in protesting President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of education.

Close to 100 teachers and activists gathered outside Miami Jackson Senior High School to urge the U.S. Senate to reject Betsy DeVos as secretary of education. Similar rallies were held in 25 states in an effort intended to ramp up political opposition to DeVos, a powerful proponent of parental choice and charter schools, and to call for greater investment in public education and schools.

Demonstrators in Allapattah lined 36th Street outside the high school, waving signs and chanting “Betsy needs to go!” and “Save our schools!” as some passing cars honked in support.

“How can we have a nominee who has never even attended a public school, whose children have never attended public school?” asked Donna Walker, a special-education teacher at Brucie Ball Educational Center, voicing a common complaint among the protesters.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

January 18, 2017

Supreme Court rejects teachers' union attempt to challenge voucher program

Voucher rally 2016@MaryEllenKlas

Florida's teachers union struck out Wednesday in its latest effort to dismantle Florida's tax credit scholarship program as the Florida Supreme Court rejectedits appeal for legal standing to challenge the voucher-like program that finances students from low-performing schools to attend private schools.

The Florida Education Association and other plaintiffs, including the NAACP, allege the scholarships are unconstitutional because the program diverts money that would otherwise go to the state’s accounts that fund public K-12 education. They also argue that the scholarship program pulls poor students out of the public school system in favor of private schools, diminishing funds to nearly 2.8 million children served by public schools.

The groups had previously been told by both the trial court and appeals court that it did not have legal standing to challenge the 15-year-old program adopted by the Legislature and Wednesday's rejection ends is their final appeal. Florida businesses earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits by donating to designated organizations -- primarily "Step Up for Students" -- which fund and distribute the scholarships. 

The decision is a victory for supporters of the scholarship program and comes  one year after the rally they held on the steps of the state Capitol to protest the lawsuit. Thousands of supporters gathered at the rally led by Martin Luther King III, son of the civil rights leader.

The event was organized by the "Save Our Scholarships Coalition" and other school-choice groups to emphasize support for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. The groups have waged an expensive year-long television and social media marketing campaign that urged the teachers' union to "drop the suit."

Attorneys representing the state and the parents of scholarship recipients argued the union had no standing to sue because no scholarship money actually enters or leaves the state treasury. The scholarships are funded directly through private donations from businesses, which can then earn dollar-for-dollar tax credits from the state for their contributions.

In 2015, Leon County Circuit Court Judge George Reynolds III agreed with that explanation and rejected the teachers' lawsuit. The First District Court of Appeal agreed last year.

Justices Barbara Pariente, Peggy Quince, Charles Canady and Ricky Polston agreed the union could not challenge the law. Justice R. Fred Lewis wanted to allow them to have oral arguments. Chief Justice Jorge Labarga and newly-appointed Justice Alan Lawson did not vote.

The program funds scholarships for more than 78,000 children to go to private, often religious, schools. Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students facilitates almost all of the money; $447 million was doled out this school year.

Proponents of the scholarship argue that if the teachers' union is successful in its lawsuit then the students would be "evicted" from private school because their families wouldn't be able to afford it anymore.

More than a quarter of the scholarship recipients -- almost 20,900 -- live in Miami-Dade County, and almost 70 percent of them are black or Hispanic.

The teachers union has been at war with the GOP-led Legislature for nearly two decades over the diversion of state funds into the voucher-like programs. In some of his first remarks as the new Florida House speaker last year, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, accused the teachers union of being "downright evil" for its legal challenge to the tax credit scholarship program.


On Wednesday, Corcoran called the decision “a great victory for school children, parents, and classroom teachers who want the best for their students.”

Miami Herald staff reporter Kristen Clark contributed to this report. 

Photo: 2016 rally at the Florida Capitol in support of school voucher programs. By Steve Cannon, AP


January 04, 2017

Two Florida Board of Education seats vacant as next meeting approaches

via @TB_Times' @JeffSolochek

The seven-person Florida Board of Education heads toward its Jan. 17 meeting with two open seats and no announced time line from the Governor's Office to fill them.

Board member John Padget, a Keys businessman and onetime Monroe superintendent, was forced to step down in December after having served two full terms. He cannot be reappointed.

Board member Michael Olenick, a former Department of Education general counsel, could be considered for another stint on the board. He spent only two years in the seat, filling the unexpired term of Miami-Dade physician Ada Armas, who resigned after two years.

"Anyone is welcome to apply and can find more information at http://www.flgov.com/appointments/," Governor's Office spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said via email.

So far, Schenone wrote, six people have submitted applications for the positions. They include two former Republican candidates for public office and a college administrator.

December 17, 2016

Florida lawmakers want to maximize classroom learning


How much classroom time Florida students spend actually learning will be a major focus for key state lawmakers in charge of dolling out more than $23 billion for pre-K-12 education next year, and some of those overhauls could be further reductions to mandatory testing as well as tweaks to the school-year calendar.

The specifics are yet to be proposed and debated, but Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. and Sen. David Simmons, the new chairmen of the pre-K-12 budget committees in their respective chambers, are both approaching their new responsibility with broad ambitions. They also share a unified goal to direct more dollars and resources to classrooms, even if it means upending the status quo.

“We’re going to look at and review and have oversight on every dollar in that budget. I think it’s our responsibility to ask the questions,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican in his third term who has had — and will continue to have — major influence in advancing school choice policies. “We want to take a deep dive and make sure that we’re getting ever penny that we can to that classroom across the board, whether it’s a traditional public school, a magnet, a charter.”

Diaz and Simmons both this week suggested revisions to the school-year calendar could be on the table in 2017, such as potentially extending the school-day for students in failing schools and adjusting when standardized tests are administered during the year.

More here.

December 08, 2016

FSU President John Thrasher still no fan of guns on campus

John-thrasherfrom @LloydDunk of the News Service of Florida:

In his annual "state of the university" address on Wednesday, Florida State University President John Thrasher reiterated his strong opposition to allowing guns on university and college campuses.

As a member of the Florida Senate, Thrasher helped kill a bill in 2011 that would have allowed gun owners with concealed-weapons licenses to bring their firearms to Florida's university and state-college campuses.

"I opposed it. I killed it. I have worked against it since then," Thrasher told the FSU faculty. "And you have my promise that I will work against it this year also."

The so-called "campus carry" bill, which in the past has been approved by the House, has already re-emerged as an issue for the 2017 legislative session. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, filed a new version of the bill (HB 6005) on Wednesday.

The issue also may have more support in 2017 in the Senate, where newly elected Sen. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, a major supporter, has been named chairman of the Judiciary Committee. That committee is where the proposal, strongly backed by Second Amendment groups, died during the 2016 session.

Thrasher, a former House speaker and Senate Rules Committee chairman, said he continues to agree with other university and college leaders, campus law enforcement officials and faculty members "that having more guns on campus does not make our campus safer."

Continue reading "FSU President John Thrasher still no fan of guns on campus" »

December 02, 2016

Latvala bristles at freshman senator's attempt to repeal in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants

via @JeffSolochek

Without mentioning any names, or even the issue at hand, Florida Sen. Jack Latvala took a clear swipe Thursday at a newly minted Senate colleague who filed legislation to undo a university tuition measure that Latvala worked hard to broker two years ago.

Sen. Greg Steube, a Sarasota Republican, proposed a bill Wednesday to void a law granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students who graduate from Florida high schools. Latvala initially had little to say about the proposal, which he hadn't yet read.

MORE: "In-state college tuition rates for Florida's undocumented students could be in danger"

A day later, in a room filled with school board members from across the state, Latvala let loose. He made his comments in response to the question of what might be his biggest non-financial challenge in the 2017 session.

That challenge, Latvala said, will be coming to grips with the largest freshman group of senators in memory — 20 in all, 17 of whom came from the Florida House with their own set of protocols and behaviors that differ from the more collegial Senate.

He paused, then continued to speak about "one of" the House transplants who, just a few days into the term decided to file a bill that would repeal all the hard work a longstanding senator — the Appropriations Committee chairman, no less — spent significant effort moving through the Legislature.

Latvala is the Appropriations chair.

"It gets your back up," he said. "The final chapter hasn't been played on that."

FSBA executive director Andrea Messina, who moderated the panel, playfully asked, "It wasn't Sen. (Dana) Young, was it?"

A grinning Young sat three seats away from Latvala, who responded quickly, "She wouldn't dare."

Sen. David Simmons, another Senate long-timer at the table, said he spent eight years in the House before coming to the upper chamber. The operating models of each differs greatly, he said, and it will take time for all to acclimate to one another.

But one thing is certain, Simmons said: Newcomers quickly learn that "the toe or foot you step on is attached to another part of the anatomy you might need to kiss" later on to get what you want.

The room burst into laughter. Steube was not present.