March 29, 2017

UPDATED: Prepare for another budget showdown over 'Best & Brightest' bonuses

SP_409499_KEEL_2_FLGOV@ByKristenMClark

While both the House and Senate are interested in more than quadrupling funding to expand the “Best & Brightest” teacher bonus program next year, only the House actually proposes a dollar figure in its initial budget plan.

Both chambers’ education budget plans were unveiled Tuesday in advance of the full budget roll-out this week.

The House plan calls for $214 million in the 2017-18 budget for the teacher bonuses, up from the $49 million the Legislature allocated this year. But the Senate proposal zeros out the program funding — setting up another year of negotiations over the controversial program.

“That’s part of the process; this is not the first go-around with that in dealing with the Senate,” said Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman. “That’s par for the course.”

MORE: “$250 million for teacher incentives? Florida lawmakers crafting plan to do it”

Senate Pre-K-12 Education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, revealed in February that lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were interested in expanding the “Best & Brightest” program so that teachers could be eligible in more ways than just their SAT/ACT score from high school and so that principals could also qualify for bonus dollars.

Simmons said then the House was exploring potentially $250 million for next year, which he said the Senate was supportive of.

He told reporters Wednesday morning that not including “Best & Brightest” in the Senate’s initial budget proposal is part of a strategic move to ensure the Senate gets some of its priorities, too, in budget negotiations.

“That’s a matter that we’re going to discuss and I believe when we put our budget together, it’s with the expectation that we will be dealing with that issue,” Simmons said, “and we want very much to accommodate the House on that issue — and that’s part of the give and take. We know that this is important [to them].”

More here.

Photo credit: Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

[originally posted 5:30 a.m.; updated 10:15 a.m.]

March 28, 2017

Florida House's school recess bill no longer requires daily recess

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida parents seeking more recess time for their children suffered a setback Tuesday, when state lawmakers significantly watered down a proposal that was supposed to require 20 minutes of daily recess for all public elementary students.

Members of a House subcommittee were willing to give students more recess time during the school week — but not nearly to the extent that parents have fought for for more than a year and that many lawmakers previously supported.

The original bill — which remains intact in the Senate — called for “at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week,” 20 minutes per day, for the nearly 1.3 million Florida children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

But under the House’s amended bill, recess would be legally required at most two days a week, and a third of all elementary students — 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders statewide — won’t have any guarantees of recess.

The changes to HB 67 by the Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee drew immediate criticism from “recess moms” and opposition from health and wellness experts because it clashes with research-based recommendations that endorse daily recess, separate from physical education classes.

Although 56 House members — or roughly half of the 120-member chamber — had signed on to co-sponsor the original version, bill sponsor and Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia said Tuesday the revisions were necessary to ensure the bill would be considered in committee.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Kindergarten students head out to the playground for recess at Citrus Grove Elementary School on Thursday, February 9, 2017. Florida lawmakers are again considering a statewide mandate for daily recess in public elementary schools. Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

'This is an abomination,' senator says of political games surrounding testing reforms

IMG_Testing_file_art@ByKristenMClark

Efforts by the state Senate to address too much standardized testing in Florida’s public schools this year are on the rocks after a key proposal was abruptly postponed Monday when one senator objected to what he called an “abomination” of the legislative process.

After forcing the delay, veteran Republican and former Senate President Tom Lee blasted his own party leaders for last-minute political tactics and for “stealing” components of a popular Democratic bill in order to salvage a separate reform proposal from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who is No. 2 in the chamber behind Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“There’s right and there’s wrong, and just because Sen. [Bill] Montford is a member of the minority party — that’s the only reason his legislation isn’t up,” Lee, of Thonotosassa, told reporters. “This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.”

Lee added: “This is just such a flawed process to undergo, and I’m embarrassed by it. As a member of the Senate that’s been here 15 years and believes this process ought to work off of mutual trust and respect for the process, this is an abomination.”

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

March 27, 2017

Florida House panel strips foreign language swap from computer coding bill

Coding@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House isn't supporting a controversial proposal to let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language course, likely stalling the concept for the second-straight session.

Instead, a House subcommittee on Monday passed an amended version of HB 265 that removes any mention of foreign languages and focuses more on how the state Department of Education can better promote computer science learning in Florida's public schools.

The original proposal -- which was first pitched in 2016 but didn't pass -- hasn't gotten very much traction so far this session. The Senate version of it (SB 104) cleared its first of two committees during an early committee week in January, but it hasn't been taken up again since.

Monday's hearing in the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee was the first for the House bill.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

March 24, 2017

Florida House committee proposes changes to school recess bill

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@ByKristenMClark

Next week would have been make-or-break for this year’s efforts by the Florida Legislature to implement mandatory daily recess in public elementary schools.

While the Senate bill (SB 78) sailed through committees and awaits a floor vote, the House bill had yet to move — and next week is the last week policy subcommittees are expected to meet.

But “recess moms” are in luck.

Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has scheduled the recess bill (HB 67) to be heard Tuesday morning in his House Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee.

However, Latvala’s committee is proposing some hefty changes, which might not leave all “recess moms” happy.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

Tallahassee's youngest lobbyist is a Miami teen who wants to ban texting while driving

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via @KyraGurney

At 17, Mark Merwitzer might be Florida’s youngest lobbyist.

The Miami high school junior is on a mission to keep drivers from texting behind the wheel and he says he won’t stop until it’s a state law.

Over the past year, the teen has met with youth councils, county officials and state legislators to argue that texting behind the wheel should be a primary offense — meaning police can pull drivers over just for using their phones, instead of issuing a ticket only if they are stopped for another infraction. With the help of Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, Merwitzer has championed a bill that has so far cleared several hurdles. Similar efforts in past years have struggled to advance, but on Wednesday the bill got unanimous support from the Senate transportation committee.

“I’m personally very tired of seeing people’s lives thrown away because of texting while driving,” said Merwitzer, who does not yet have his driver’s license, but said he sees motorists on their phones all the time on Miami highways.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

March 23, 2017

Bill promoting religious expression in school passes Florida Senate

Stand Your Ground (3)@ByKristenMClark

Florida’s public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday, mostly along party lines.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, heralded his bill (SB 436) as a way for lawmakers to “take a stand for liberty,” because it makes explicitly clear the rights to religious expression that students and teachers have in public schools, regardless of their faith.

But Democrats worry the measure goes beyond existing protections of religious freedom and violates the constitutional separation between church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they’re of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.

“It’s religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional,” said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach.

The bill passed on a 23-13 vote, with Miami Shores Democratic Sen. Daphne Campbell voting with Republicans to support the bill. Campbell told the Herald/Times: “I don’t see anything wrong. The bill is not discriminatory. ... I just don’t see how anyone could be against prayer.”

Baxley’s proposal — which has large support from Christian and conservative-leaning groups — is more controversial and more far-reaching than a companion measure that’s moved through the House with, so far, unanimous support. The full House could vote on its bill (HB 303) as early as next week.

Full story here..

Photo credit: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. Steve Cannon / AP

March 20, 2017

Florida Lottery rakes in cash but fewer students get scholarships

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via @KyraGurney

Gabriela Fowler has a 4.7 GPA, takes college-level calculus and statistics courses, and is the president of her school’s business leadership club. But for the 17-year-old Hialeah High senior, a college scholarship funded by the record-setting revenues of the Florida Lottery somehow remains out of reach.

Like many low-income and minority students in Miami-Dade County, Fowler has been shut out by tougher eligibility requirements for Bright Futures college scholarships. A few years ago, her SAT and ACT scores would have been high enough to earn money that, along with federal financial aid, would have covered most of her college costs. Instead, Fowler is now scrambling to find a way to pay for college.

She’s far from alone.

Since the Florida Legislature started instituting tougher standards tied to higher test scores beginning in 2011, Miami-Dade schools with large populations of low-income and African-American and Hispanic students have seen a drastic decrease in the number of students who qualify for what has long been billed as the Lottery’s primary payout for education.

At Hialeah High, where many students come from immigrant families and speak Spanish at home, almost a fifth of the graduating class qualified for the scholarship funding in 2011. By 2015, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, that number dropped to 8 percent. At Homestead High, which has similar demographics, 25 students were eligible for the scholarships in 2011. Four years later, only three students qualified. And at Miami Jackson High, where almost all of the students are low-income, just 2 percent of the graduating class qualified in 2015.

“We have the GPA, we have the grades, we have the other requirements, everything is there except the test scores,” Fowler said.

When lawmakers changed the scholarship standards, they said the goal was to control spiraling costs in the wake of Florida’s foreclosure crisis and plummeting government revenue. Now, the economy is again humming, revenue has rebounded and the Florida Lottery has seen record-breaking sales for five years in a row, earning more than $6 billion last year.

But the Bright Futures program last year dropped to the lowest level of funding since 2003. Money paid out for scholarships has been cut nearly in half over seven years and the number of incoming freshmen awarded last year was almost as low as when the program was created in 1997. And, along with hiking the standards, lawmakers have cut the size of the awards.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell, Miami Herald staff

March 16, 2017

Some religious schools could be allowed to have guns

Florida Legislature (2)
@ByKristenMClark

Private schools with a religious institution on-site could decide for themselves if they want to allow armed security or concealed guns on their property, under a proposal that got preliminary approval from a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The measure (HB 849) from Polk County Republican Rep. Neil Combee would carve out certain religious private schools from the Florida law that prohibits anyone except law enforcement officers from carrying guns in K-12 schools and colleges and universities, regardless of whether those schools are public or private.

Combee said houses of worship — such as churches, mosques or synagogues — that also have a daycare or school on their property cannot have armed security, because doing so would violate the state’s ban on guns in schools and certain other “gun-free” zones. 

More here.

Photo credit: Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk County, presents a concealed weapons bill to the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Tallahassee, Fla. Steve Cannon / AP

 

March 15, 2017

'Religious liberties' measures diverge, but advance

Religious liberties

@ByKristenMClark & @loujacobson

Efforts by the Legislature to make explicitly clear the rights students and teachers have to express their religious beliefs in Florida public schools is ready for a floor vote in the Senate, while earning high praise in an initial House hearing.

A fast-tracked measure in the Senate (SB 436) — one of President Joe Negron’s top priorities — passed its second and final committee Tuesday on a party-line vote, shortly before a House panel unanimously advanced its own version (HB 303).

The House conversation was in stark contrast to the Senate’s discussions, where that chamber’s measure has polarized members.

MORE: “Lawmakers push for more ‘religious liberties’ in Florida public schools”

The bills were once identical, but the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee amended its bill to make it more narrow than the Senate’s — removing some of the more controversial elements, such as a requirement that school districts adopt a Florida Department of Education-crafted policy that “establishes a limited public forum for student speakers at any school event.” Such a provision would allow students of different faiths to, for example, pray at school assemblies.

The House’s pared-down bill won bipartisan support and near-universal endorsement from a crowded audience. When the House committee ended its meeting after passing the bill unanimously, one audience member shouted out: “Can we close with a prayer?” The remark drew scattered applause.

Lithia Republican Jake Raburn, the House Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee chairman, called it “a bit perplexing that we have to be here when these protections are provided for.”

Read more.

Photo credit: Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, presents his “religious liberties” bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, March 14, 2017. The panel sent it to the Senate floor on a 5-4 vote, with Democrats opposed. Louis Jacobson / PolitiFact