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.


March 18, 2015

Students rally support for college affordability plan

ScottpresserGov. Rick Scott took part in a rally in the Capitol Wednesday aimed at building support for his latest college affordability proposal.

The plan would prohibit state universities from increasing the cost of graduate-school tuition. It would also make college textbooks exempt from sales tax, require colleges and universities to publish the price of each course before the semester begins, and enable students to use Bright Futures scholarships during the summer semester.

The event was organized by more than a dozen student leaders who back the measure.

"We share the vision of an affordable education in Florida," said Florida State University Student Body President Stefano Cavalarro.

The governor's proposal is contained in SB 938 by Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, which is on the agenda for Monday's Senate Higher Education Committee meeting.

There is no identical bill in the House. But Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, has a bill that would make textbooks tax exempt (HB 1317).

Scott said he believed the $41 million tax cut for textbooks was possible, even despite some uncertainty about the budget.  

"We have the money to do all of these things with our budget," he said.

He urged the students to lobby their state senators and representatives on the issue.

Florida House votes to scale back testing in schools

Seeking to ease the pressure on schoolchildren — and quell the growing backlash from parents — the Florida House voted unanimously Wednesday to scale back testing in public schools.

The proposal (HB 7069) eliminates an 11th-grade English test and a requirement that local school districts create tests in every subject not covered by the new Florida Standards Assessment.

It also allows the school year to begin as early as August 10.

"The purpose of this is for us to be able to continue our improvement," said House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake.

The House declined, however, to suspend school grades during the transition to new standards and assessments, as superintendents, teachers and parents had requested.

Lawmakers also rejected a proposal supported by parents that would have given all students the option to take pencil-and-paper tests.

"We had an opportunity to do more and we failed to do that," said Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville.

The state Senate is also considering a plan to scale back testing (SB 616), though it contains significant differences.

For one, the Senate version limits the amount of time students can spend on state-mandated tests. It also allows school districts to use this year's FSA scores for diagnostic purposes only in light of widespread technical problems.

Testing has been a hot-button issue in recent months, with parents across the state saying Florida’s testing program puts too much stress on students.

The outcry has only grown louder since software problems and an alleged cyber attack plagued this month’s roll out of the new web-based Florida Standards Assessments.

March 17, 2015

Florida Senate pitches modest increase in education funding

via @jeffsolochek

The Florida Senate education appropriations subcommittee has released its budget plan, just one day after the House unveiled its version.

The Senate proposal includes a 3 percent increase in per student funding, to $7,122.85. That's just slightly below the House recommendation of $7,130, a number aimed at setting a historic level (not accounting for inflation).

But like the House, the Senate comes in short of the $7,176 that Gov. Rick Scott wanted.

Senate education appropriations chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, explained that when Scott wrote his budget, the state expected to get full funding for its Medicaid Low Income Pool (LIP) program. But that's not happening, Gaetz noted, so the legislative plans must look different.

The state also has seen enrollment rise by about 25,000 students, Gaetz said, and that further impacts the amount of money available.

As an overview, he said, the Senate proposes increasing K-12 public education by $745 million, K-12 private education programs by $4.3 million, Florida colleges by $57 million, and the State University System by $72 million. It would decrease funding to Voluntary Prekindergarten and private higher education programs.

The plan also would more than double the amount for personal learning scholarships, or vouchers, for students with disabilities. And it would double performance-based funding for universities.

These recommendations led Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, to celebrate that the budget represents opportunity and accountability.

Gaetz noted that the proposal comes with cuts. Those include elimination of some non-recurring programs that could not account well for the money they received in the past.

He said he and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, sought information to justify the expenses before making the proposal.

"In light of having less money than we thought," Gaetz said he asked others, "what are the most important things we can do?"

The committee plans to review conforming language and a proviso when it meets on Thursday.

Florida House unveils its recommended education budget

It's that time of the year when the budget committees roll out their proposals.

Among the first to debut: the Florida House's recommended $21.1 billion education budget.

(You can find Chairman Erik Fresen’s proposal here.)

The overall figure represents a $708 million -- or 3.5 percent -- increase over last year’s spending on public schools.

"Education state funding exceeds any previous year," Fresen pointed out Monday.

The House wants to spend roughly $7,130 per student -- an increase of $215, or 3.1 percent, over the current spending level.

That figure would fall short of Gov. Rick Scott's goal: $7,176 for 2015-16.

But it would still top the high watermark set in 2007-08 by about $4 (not accounting for inflation).

Fresen called the number "historic."

The House proposal also includes $80 million for classroom technology.

Among the other highlights:

The State University System would see an additional $157 million, plus $100 million for performance funding and $10 million for the state's two preeminent universities: Florida State and the University of Florida.

The Florida College System would see its budget increase by $28.6 million.

And the overall funding for Voluntary Pre-K would stay the same, despite a projected dip in enrollment. 

March 16, 2015

Senate panel approves controversial campus guns bill

Despite vehement opposition from college presidents, campus police chiefs and the university system's Board of Governors, the Senate Higher Education panel on Monday approved a proposal that would allow concealed weapons on college campuses.

The party-line vote took place after 60 minutes of emotional public testimony.

Harrison DuBosar, director of the Florida State University Office of Governmental Affairs, said the student senate had voted unanimously to oppose the bill.

"Our police department, back in November, [had] an incredible response and ensured the safety of our students," DuBosar said, referencing a campus shooting that left two students and one FSU employee injured. "That could have ended entirely different if many students on campus were carrying their guns."

But Rebecca Hargrove, a member of Students for Concealed Carry at Florida State, said she and other adult students with concealed weapons permits should be allowed to protect themselves. She pointed out that many of the emergency blue light telephones on campus are broken.

"We aren't wards of the university," Hargrove said. "We are citizens of the United States."

Florida NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer echoed her comments.

"The plain truth is campuses are not safe," Hammer said. "They are gun-free zones where murders and rapists may commit their crimes without fear of being harmed by their victims."

Former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said he supported the bill because he had not seen evidence that it would lead to more suicides or crime.

"In the absence of evidence, one is left with the Constitution of the United States," he said.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, also voted in favor of the proposal, but with a caveat.

"I'd like to look at the idea of further training for those individuals," he said.

After the vote, FSU Police Chief David Perry said he was both "disappointed and concerned."

Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said she had hoped "common sense would prevail." 

"This is not the place to have guns," she said.

Joyner offered her own explanation for the vote: "The NRA rules."

The bill (SB 176) has two more stops in the Senate: the Judiciary and Rules committees.