January 14, 2015

With Carlos Curbelo in Congress, Rick Scott gets to pick his Miami-Dade school board replacement


Miami Republican Carlos Curbelo was sworn into Congress last week -- which means Florida Gov. Rick Scott now has to choose someone to finish Curbelo's term on the Miami-Dade County school board.

There is no shortage of interest. Nine people so far have said they would like to be appointed, Scott's office said Wednesday in response to an inquiry from the Miami Herald.

One name in particular has resonated in local Republican circles: Lubby Navarro, who works in the school district's office of intergovernmental affairs.

Navarro's name has been whispered as a Curbelo replacement since he was elected Nov. 4. When asked about the possibility on Nov. 5, she was vague about her intentions. By Nov. 12 she had sent the governor a cover letter and résumé.

In addition to her existing ties to the school district, Navarro is a former state Capitol and County Hall aide, an elected Redland zoning council member and a longtime volunteer for the Miami-Dade Republican Party. Though school board seats are nonpartisan, Scott has usually filled seats with fellow members of the GOP.

The heir-apparent treatment of Navarro behind closed doors has bothered some Republicans, who privately gripe that they feel other qualified candidates may not get a fair shot as a result.

Rounding out the list of applicants are:

  • Carolina Blanco, a teacher and elected West Kendall zoning councilwoman (and the daughter of former GOP congressional candidate Lorenzo Palomares-Starbuck);
  • Renier Diaz de la Portilla, an attorney and former school board member for a different district who most recently lost a judicial race last year (and whose brother is Republican state Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla);
  • Daniel Diaz Leyva, an attorney who lost a state House race last year;
  • Duysevi Miyar, a teacher who lost a school board race last year to Chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman;
  • Eugenio Perez, a teacher who lost a 2012 House race to Rep. Michael Bileca;
  • Libby Perez, a small-business owner who lost a 2012 House race to Rep. Jeanette Nuñez and a 2010 school board race to Curbelo;
  • Anay Abraham de Naranjo, an educational consultant, and
  • Ira Jay Paul, a retired teacher who applied for a school board vacancy in 2001.

--with Marc Caputo

Will class size be back on the table in 2015?

State lawmakers have made Florida's testing troubles an early priority.

But some members of the Board of Education have at least one other legislative goal for 2015. 

During a meeting Wednesday in Sebring, state Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey said she hopes lawmakers will revisit the issue of class size.

School systems across Florida have long had trouble meeting the limits on class size mandated by a 2002 Constitutional amendment. 

They face penalties for each classroom that is not in compliance. 

Meeting those caps can be tricky. My personal favorite anecdote involves Jack Gordon Elementary in Miami-Dade County. The school had the maximum number of students in each of its fourth-grade classes -- until triplets showed up. Suddenly, three classrooms were overcrowded.

Fishman Lipsey said the lack of flexibility was hurting some schools.

"Potentially, there is a way to restructure that amendment that leads to the outcomes that we seek," she said.

State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand echoed the sentiment.

"It's a bad law," Chartrand said. "The intentions are right, but the end results... Your electives get filled up with more kids than they should."

Chartrand wants schools to be able to submit their average class size instead of the figures for each individual classroom. (Charter schools already have that flexibility because they receive fewer capital dollars than traditional public schools.)

Voters had the option to approve that change in 2010, but a proposed Constitutional amendment failed to get the necessary 60 percent approval.

Chartrand said it would be easier to ask the legislature.

"It would be helpful if we could do it at the legislative level instead of putting it on the ballot, because that's a major campaign and that's a difficult thing to do," he said.

Senators have more questions for Education Commissioner Stewart

State senators had a laundry list of questions for Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart last week.

They aren't done yet.

On Tuesday, Sens. Don Gaetz, Bill Montford and John Legg sent Stewart six pages of follow-up questions.  

"We appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues fully and candidly and to engage senators on a very specific level," the Senate leaders wrote. "While our questions may be probing and detailed, our committees' inquiries are inspired by an abiding commitment to accountability and a concern that thoughtful, effective, timely and valid implementation is the best way to ensure that Florida districts, schools, students, and educators are motivated and measured by the highest standards of performance."

Among their questions: How much total time will students spend during the 2014-15 school year on state-required assessments? How much total funding will be expended (state and local dollars) on state-required assessments?

They also asked Stewart to what extent she believes "that each school district is ready, with appropriate technology already in place, to successfully administer all statewide, standardized and state-required assessments this spring."

The lawmakers want a reply by Feb. 6.

Download The Letter Here

January 08, 2015

Teachers union won't appeal decision in log-rolling lawsuit

The statewide teachers union will no longer pursue one of its school voucher lawsuits.

The decision came after discussions with Senate President Andy Gardiner, Florida Education Association Vice President JoAnne McCall said Thursday.

McCall said the union had "opened a dialogue with the Senate president on a broad range of issues, including testing, special-needs students and other public-education concerns of paramount importance to the FEA.”

The suit threatened a program that has been a top priority for Gardiner.

It took aim at SB 850, which both created a new scholarship program for special-needs students (championed by Gardiner) and expanded Florida's controversial school voucher program. The FEA argued that SB 850 violated a provision of the Constitution limiting each law to a single subject.

The bill became law earlier this year. 

A judge dismissed the suit on procedural grounds last month, and discouraged the union from amending its complaint. Union leaders said Thursday they would not appeal the ruling.

Gardiner said he was "pleased to see the FEA drop their lawsuit."

"The families of the more than 1,300 students with unique abilities currently awarded Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts can now rest assured that they will have access to school choice options that are best suited to their unique needs," he said.

But the union was clear that Thursday's decision would not impact a separate lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the school voucher program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

In a video statement released Wednesday, McCall said she would take that lawsuit to the Florida Supreme Court, if necessary.

"Opponents have challenged us to drop this lawsuit," she said. "But when it comes to standing up for our students, we will never hold back and we will never give up."


Magazine ranks Florida's education system 28th in the nation

Lawmakers have spent the last six years touting Florida's showing in the annual ranking of state education systems.

That is likely to end in 2015.

Florida came in 28th in the latest rankings, released Thursday by the national magazine Education Week.

The Sunshine State had been in the top 11 since 2009. It was ranked fifth-best in 2010.

Education Week changed its criteria for ranking the states last year, shifting the focus from public policy to student outcomes. No rankings were published in 2014.

Under the revised formula, Florida posted above-average scores for student achievement. The state earned points for high Advanced Placement scores, as well as successful efforts to shrink the achievement gap between poor students and their more affluent peers.

But Florida continued to lag most other states in education funding.

The magazine calculated Florida's spending to be $9,120 per student -- $2,615 less than the national average of $11,735. 

January 07, 2015

Florida lawmakers make testing troubles an early priority

After a year that saw parents rise up against standardized testing, Florida lawmakers on Wednesday said they are prepared to improve the state’s assessment program.

"We have a chance to do a rewrite so we can ensure that we are not over-testing our children, and ensure that we provide a road map to the districts about how to do this,” said Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

Lawmakers floated a number of ideas. Among them:

•Reducing the overall number of state-mandated exams.

•Eliminating repetitive tests.

•Allowing some national tests, such as the Advanced Placement exams, to stand in the place of state-mandated tests.

•Providing districts with more flexibility on how to assess students.

Lawmakers also discussed districts' readiness for the new Florida Standards Assessment, which launch this year. Several school districts have said they lack the technology needed to give the computer-based tests — and have turned to the legislature for help.

While it is unlikely lawmakers that can make any changes before the testing cycle begins in the spring, they intend to act quickly, Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Don Gaetz said.

"We don’t have a year or two to study this," said Gaetz, R-Niceville. "Any kind of clean up that we need, or simplification we need in testing and assessment, should have been addressed by now. We’re in the fourth quarter."

Continue reading "Florida lawmakers make testing troubles an early priority" »

December 29, 2014

Support for Common Core could cost Jeb Bush in primary

Jeb Bush never wavered in his support for the Common Core state standards — not even after the education benchmarks became a target for Tea Party groups decrying federal overreach in education.

That may hurt the former Florida governor, who has said he is considering a run for the White House.

Bush would find himself in a crowded field of Republican candidates, some of whom — along with ardent conservatives nationwide — have stepped up their attacks on the Common Core.

Speaking this week on Fox News Sunday, conservative syndicated columnist George Will said Bush has "four strikes against him — Common Core, immigration, his name and the big sign on his back that says establishment choice."

Read more here.

December 11, 2014

Feds: Florida scholarship program does not violate anti-discrimination laws

Florida did not violate anti-discrimination laws by using standardized test scores to award Bright Futures scholarships, the U.S. Department of Education has found.

The department’s Office for Civil Rights had been investigating the Bright Futures program, which awards college scholarships based on grade point average and SAT or ACT scores. The probe was based on allegations that the eligibility criteria had the effect of discriminating against Hispanic and African-American students.

But federal authorities found “insufficient evidence of a legal violation” and concluded the investigation Wednesday, according to a memo addressed to Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and obtained by the Herald/Times.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who opposed the probe, said he was glad federal authorities had ended the “baseless investigation.”

“The Bright Futures program has helped thousands of Florida’s top students finance their college educations and given them the foundation for successful careers,” Rubio said in a statement.

But Bob Schaeffer, a national testing expert who filed the original complaint with the Office for Civil Rights, was disappointed in the outcome.

“It is not surprising that the U.S. Department of Education — a national leader in promoting misuse and overuse of standardized exam results to assess students, teachers and schools — would decline to take action against Florida’s test-score based scholarships despite its own finding of the program’s ‘statistically significant’ negative impact on African Americans and Hispanics,” he said.

Read more here.

December 05, 2014

Families ask to take part in voucher lawsuit

UPDATE: Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds, III, granted the families full party status to participate in the defense.

ORIGINAL POST: Several families are in Tallahassee on Friday in hopes of becoming parties to a high-profile education lawsuit.

The legal challenge -- brought by the Florida Education Association, the Florida School Boards Association, the state PTA and several other groups -- is aimed at the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families. The groups say the program conflicts with the state's Constitutional duty to provide a "uniform" system of public schools.

But 15 parents want to help defend the program. 

"Most of the Proposed Intervenor-Defendants do not have the financial means to send their children to private school, absent the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship," their attorney wrote in court filings. "Accordingly, if the program is eliminated they will be forced to look for alternatives or to send their children to public school -- in many instances the same public schools where their children were struggling or failing before becoming Florida Tax Credit Scholarship recipients."

Here's more on the lawsuit.

December 04, 2014

Feds sue for-profit college in Miami for using strippers to recruit students


Some Florida for-profit colleges have used highly aggressive techniques to recruit students — including non-stop phone calls, misleading promises and $500 rewards for referrals.

But according to a federal lawsuit, Miami-based FastTrain College added a new wrinkle: hiring strippers as “admissions representatives.”

The “exotic dancer” allegation comes from the U.S. attorney’s office and Florida’s attorney general, who this week both joined a pending whistle-blower lawsuit against FastTrain. A civil complaint filed by the two agencies say at least one FastTrain campus used strippers to attract students, though it did not identify the campus.

The college “purposely hired attractive women and sometimes exotic dancers and encouraged them to dress provocatively while they recruited young men in neighborhoods to attend FastTrain,” the lawsuit states. Story here.