January 20, 2016

January 19, 2016

Thousands rally in Tallahassee urging teachers' union to 'drop the suit'

Voucher rally


Several thousand parents and children rallied in Florida’s capital on Tuesday to urge the state’s largest teachers union to drop a lawsuit challenging a controversial voucher-like education program that benefits low-income families.

Martin Luther King III joined several religious and community leaders in praising the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which they say affords opportunities many families wouldn’t otherwise have, and they urged the Florida Education Association to end its “misguided” effort to halt the program.

Critics — led by the FEA — argue the tax-credit scholarships divert state money away from a quality public education system the state is required, under the Constitution, to provide.

The 15-year-old state program helps low-income families afford to send their children to private schools by giving dollar-for-dollar tax credits — as much as $447 million this year, growing to $560 million in 2016-17 — to businesses that donate to organizations that fund the scholarships. Almost all of the scholarship money is facilitated by Jacksonville-based Step Up For Students.

“This is about justice; this is about righteousness,” said King, eldest son of the late civil rights leader whose namesake annual federal holiday was Monday. “This is about freedom — the freedom to choose for your family and your child.”

Organizers for the rally — which included the “Save Our Scholarships Coalition” and various other school-choice advocacy groups — called the "historic" event the largest school choice rally ever in Florida and one of the largest in the country. They said 10,500 people attended, with 240 busloads coming from all over the state — including three dozen buses from South Florida and about 30 from the Tampa Bay area.

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January 14, 2016

Florida Senate moves ahead with "choice in sports" proposal


A sweeping proposal to bring "school choice" to Florida high school athletics and other extracurricular activities passed its first Senate committee Thursday, despite concerns that it could encourage rampant recruiting of student-athletes.

Senate Bill 684 -- approved unanimously by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee -- builds on lawmakers' efforts in recent years to grant more flexibility for student-athletes so they can participate in programs immediately when they transfer schools.

Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland -- who's spearheading the legislation with Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz -- said student-athletes should have the same right as any other student who participates in extracurricular activities to transfer to whatever school of their choice and be immediately eligible to participate in school activities.

The current limitation requires transfer students to wait until the next sports season before participating in sports. It stems from a rule by the Florida High School Athletic Association, the state-designated governing body for high school athletics.

Although the FHSAA supports Stargel and Gaetz's legislation, some athletics officials in Florida disagree with lawmakers about allowing immediate eligibility, especially without geographic limitations. They worry the proposal will legitimize abuses that are already occurring, such as students shopping for top programs or being recruited.

To "dispel" those fears, the legislation includes harsh penalties for coaches and school officials who recruit student-athletes. It calls for a $5,000 fine for the first offense, the fine and a one-year's suspension from coaching for the second offense, and the fine and the loss of their teaching license for the third offense.

"To provide more of a choice in athletics, we wanted to make sure that recruiting carried a very heavy penalty," Gaetz said.

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Florida teachers: 'Enough is enough' with state education system



More than 2,000 educators across Florida rallied at the state Capitol on Thursday to protest high-stakes testing, for-profit charter schools and other statewide education policies they feel are harming students and de-valuing classroom teachers.

With repeated chants of "enough is enough," the crowd filled much of the plaza between the old and new Florida capitols to let lawmakers in the rooms above know of their discontent.

"The biggest thing I want: I want politicians out of the classroom," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union, which organized the rally. "We want them to listen -- really listen -- to what we have to say."

McCall lambasted the Republican-led Legislature for "the practice of blaming and shaming teachers" and called for an overhaul of the state's education accountability system, where students' performance on the new Florida Standards Assessments is used to decide school grades and evaluate teachers.


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January 13, 2016

Senators debate 'Best and Brightest' teacher bonuses



Mirroring other actions in the early days of the 2016 session to encourage friendly relations between the House and Senate, Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, invited the House's education budget chairman to join senators in a discussion Wednesday about the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program.

Legg, chairman of the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, acknowledged the "unorthodox move," but said he wanted to hear directly from Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, about the 1-year-old program, which is Fresen's brainchild and which House leaders want to continue.

"It is a good-faith effort to work with the House on a priority of their's," said Legg, one of several senators questionable of the program.

During an hourlong discussion, Fresen defended the teacher bonus plan, which critics allege was snuck into this year's budget during the special budget session over the summer. He refuted that and cited several committee hearings in the House last spring, in which the program was debated in various forms.

But such hearings never occurred in the Senate, so Wednesday was among members' first opportunities to debate the program.

Lawmakers allocated $44 million for the 2015-16 budget to give bonuses to the state's "Best and Brightest" teachers -- those who scored in the top 20 percent of their year when they took SAT or ACT exams in high school. For teachers who are more than a year into the job, they'd also have to be rated as "high-performing" in order to be eligible for the cash.

More than 5,300 teachers statewide qualified in the program's inaugural year. They're each due to receive $8,256.27 in April, according to the Department of Education.

The bonus plan has come under intense scrutiny and has sparked a lawsuit by the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union. The FEA argues the program discriminates against older teachers and minority teachers because they're less likely to be eligible.

Fresen's effort to see the "Best and Brightest" program continue faces hurdles in both the House and Senate this year, and its chances are unclear.

Senators on Wednesday -- both Republicans and Democrats -- probed the mechanics of the program, and many said it didn't make sense, particularly when there's no direct correlation between effective teachers and those who score well on standardized exams.

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Proposal allowing computer coding as foreign language advances


A controversial idea to allow high school students to count computer coding classes toward foreign language credits cleared its second committee in the Florida Senate on Wednesday -- but senators did not seek to resolve concerns it could impose an unfunded mandate on schools.

Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, had previously said the Senate's education budget committee would address the fiscal impact of his plan (SB 468), but that panel on Wednesday discussed nothing about the dollars that might be needed to fund it.

Ring said after the meeting that he felt there were no financial impacts, because Senate committee staff didn't note any when reviewing the bill. The analysis acknowledges, however: "The bill may have a minimal fiscal impact on school districts as they shift resources to offer more computer coding courses."

Some senators previously worried that the bill would place a burden on schools -- especially those with already strapped technology resources -- by requiring them to have sufficient computers, software and specialized teachers to meet the demand of students who opt to learn coding in lieu of a foreign language.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said he voted against it again Wednesday because his concerns weren't addressed. The rest of the Senate budget committee voted in favor of the bill.

"All it takes is that one parent and it overburdens schools when they say, 'I want my child to have computer coding,' because now you have to figure out how to facilitate a teacher and space," Bullard said. "All of those have dollars attached, and none of those concerns were remedied."

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Teachers expected to rally at Florida Capitol



More than 2,000 teachers from across Florida -- including several busloads from Miami-Dade -- are expected to rally at the state Capitol on Thursday in protest of statewide education policies.

Teachers want to "take back our state and our profession," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association -- the state's largest teachers union, which organized the rally.

Their grievances include high-stakes testing, perceived attacks on teachers and the proliferation of voucher schools and charter schools. The "Enough is Enough" rally runs from noon to 2 p.m. in the courtyard between the old and new Capitols.

"Our children are being cheated out of a good education by policy makers and education reforms that are designed to meet the needs of adults rather than the needs of our children," reads the event announcement.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee

Via @stevebousquet

Day 2 of the Florida legislative session is here. Here are five things to watch:

* Focusing on education, a Senate budget subcommittee considers a bill to let students count computer coding as a foreign language, and will discuss whether to use alternative exams in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments, as well as how much local property tax money should be spent to increase spending for schools.

* Another Senate budget subcommittee will allow groups from across the state to make pitches for taxpayer dollars. The panel's chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, held a similar hearing last year.

* A House panel takes up a bill (HB 505) to allow Florida voters to use their concealed weapons license as a form of identification at the polls for future elections.

* The Florida Chamber of Commerce kicks off its annual two-day Capitol Days with speeches and panel discussions focusing on major issues facing the Legislature.

* Senate President Andy Gardiner. R-Orlando, will speak at the annual dinner of Florida TaxWatch at the Hotel Duval.

January 12, 2016

Miami-Dade schools, county may settle Property Appraiser billing dispute


The Miami-Dade school district may recover $4.4 million from the county government in a proposed settlement agreement over a billing dispute with the Property Appraiser's office. 

For 40 years, the school district has paid the Property Appraiser for its services hearing tax appeals. The district stopped paying last year after an audit uncovered a law that appears to expressly prohibit the Property Appraiser from billing the school system.

The school district was considering a lawsuit to recover the money it says it was improperly billed in the past -- about $1.5 million a year.

“A decision was made that it didn’t really make sense to waste taxpayers’ money litigating this,” said Deputy Property Appraiser Lazaro Solis. “An agreement was reached that we can kind of put this behind us.”

A statute of limitations put a cap on how much the district could seek, according to school board attorney Walter Harvey. He called the settlement agreement “a fair result.”

“This was money that was supposed to go to our general fund that we were improperly billed for. It’s money that is being returned,” he said.

The billing issue was uncovered during a heated political battle that pitted the area’s two largest governments against each other and the Property Appraiser. At issue: a little-known entity called the Value Adjustment Board, which hears property tax appeals.

A huge backlog in tax appeals means the school district and county have to start their budget years without really knowing how much money will come in through property taxes -- the main source of revenue for both governments.

United Teachers of Dade, the local teacher's union, sued over the issue. The suit was dismissed. Frustrated school district officials launched an extensive audit of the VAB and Property Appraiser. The audit uncovered the billing issue, among others.

Both the school district and the county commission have to approve the settlement agreement. The school board is expected to approve the agreement during its regular meeting on Wednesday. The county commission is scheduled to vote on the agreement during its meeting on Jan. 20.  

Video(s): What to watch for in Florida's 2016 legislative session

From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.

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