May 08, 2017

Teachers union urges vetoes of K-12 schools budget, policy bill


Not even an hour after the Legislature wrapped up its work for 2017, the state's largest teachers union called on Republican Gov. Rick Scott to veto both the K-12 public schools budget and a mammoth $419 million policy bill that was cobbled together in private in the last days of session and narrowly approved Monday.

"HB 7069 was cooked up behind closed doors to tie popular changes like more recess and minor relief on testing to reducing local school district authority, yet another sketchy teacher bonus scheme, and more financial breaks for charter schools,” Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, said in a statement.

“Where’s the government transparency that the leadership promised this session? Floridians expect a fair process, not backroom deal-making," she said.

MORE: "$419M schools bill headed to Gov. Scott, after barely surviving Senate vote"

McCall said she was also "completely disappointed" by the $14.7 billion K-12 schools budget, a figure that doesn't include the additional funding earmarked for special programs under HB 7069.

“We hope the governor realizes, as we do, that this budget does not come anywhere close to meeting the needs of our students,” McCall said. “This budget neglects the needs of our children and our public schools.”

“This budget does nothing more than dig our public schools deeper into a financial mire,” she added. “It fails to properly and adequately support costs and growth to advance the 2.8 million students who attend our schools each day and it utterly fails to recognize the importance of funding in retaining and recruitment the high quality educators our student deserve.”

Photo credit: FEA

Senate narrowly approves $419M schools bill, while saying it needs immediate fix


Lawmakers struggled to pass a controversial $419 million, 278-page K-12 public schools bill on Monday, the final day of the annual session — as senators acknowledged parts of the rushed legislation were flawed and would need to be fixed when the Legislature reconvenes in 2018.

However, the prospect of a possible veto by Republican Gov. Rick Scott was floated even before the Monday night vote, which would stop the legislation from becoming law.

The Senate endorsed HB 7069 by the narrowest possible margin after two hours of lackluster and largely negative debate, voting 20-18 to pass it.

Three Republicans joined the 15-member Democratic caucus in opposition: René García of Hialeah, Denise Grimsley of Sebring and David Simmons of Altamonte Springs — who, as the pre-K-12 education budget chairman, handled the bill on the floor and struggled to defend it.

MORE: “Parents, school leaders urge ‘no’ vote on mammoth education bill”

Earlier in the day, the Republican-led House made quick work to pass the bill within an hour, by a 73-36 vote with all but one Democrat — Miami Rep. Roy Hardemon — opposed.

HB 7069 was a top priority of land O'Lakes Republican and House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s. Miami Republican Michael Bileca and Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr. — the House education policy and pre-K-12 budget chairmen, respectively — were heavily involved in crafting it.

But in a manner that drew heavy criticism, the large and wide-ranging bill was negotiated and finalized in private and made public for the first time Friday evening — less than 66 hours before the House voted and 71 hours before the Senate voted. (Simmons said he saw a first draft of HB 7069 only at 7 p.m. Thursday.)

“This isn’t a finished bill, it’s got problems — big problems,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. “It’s a litany of bad ideas … that do not take the needs of the student into account.”

More here.

Mailers from conservative group back Florida lawmakers on 'schools of hope'

Manny Diaz

A national Hispanic conservative group is giving a political boost to five Florida Republican lawmakers who pushed to bring more charter schools into the state.

The LIBRE Initiative, which is backed by the industrialist Koch brothers, will send mailers beginning Tuesday to voters in five districts represented by Rep. Michael Bileca of Miami, House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O'Lakes, Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. of Hialeah, Rep. Chris Latvala of Clearwater and Senate President Joe Negron of Stuart.

The bilingual, campaign-style fliers will "thank" the legislators for voting to "empower our kids." The "schools of hope" legislation allows out-of-state charter school operators to set up shop for a minimum of five years in low-income Florida communities with long-struggling public schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately run. Critics counter that more charter schools will divert state funds from traditional public schools, which will be left to languish.

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Photo credit: Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times

Ban on charters' private enrichment left out of education bill


Lawmakers were on track this spring to enact long-sought safeguards to stop businesses from turning a profit off public money intended for charter school capital projects.

But for the second year in a row, that proposal abruptly vanished and was left out of a late-session compromise House and Senate leaders struck in private.

MORE: “Parents, school leaders urge ‘no’ vote on mammoth education bill”

Despite being sought and supported by both chambers, the proposed accountability restrictions on charter schools didn’t make it in the final education budget bill released Friday evening — a 278-page proposal that combined four K-12 budget measures and lumped in myriad other education policies unrelated to spending.

Lawmakers will cast up-or-down votes on HB 7069 Monday, along with other bills that make up the 2017-18 budget; they can’t amend the bills.

Full details here on why the capital outlay restrictions aren't in the bill.

May 07, 2017

'Monday’s vote is about more than recess,' disappointed parents say of education budget bill

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Passionate parents, like Kate Asturias of Miami and Angela Browning of Orlando, have been fighting for years to get guaranteed daily recess for their children and the more than 1.2 million other kids in Florida’s public elementary schools.

The two moms trekked to Tallahassee on Friday, for the countless time, hoping to see lawmakers finally make that happen. They left disappointed once again.

The favored proposal of “recess moms” and dads that unanimously passed the Senate a month ago (SB 78) wasn’t brought to the floor by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, before Friday’s session deadline — despite parents’ numerous emails and phone calls urging him to take up the bill, which had the votes to pass easily.

Instead, Corcoran prolonged a conclusion to the recess proposal by lumping it — with a never-before-seen exemption parents didn’t ask for — into a 278-page education budget bill released Friday evening, three days before lawmakers will vote Monday on an annual budget package they can’t change.

Filled with disappointment and anger, parents vented their frustration in social media groups this weekend — and some now have a message for their lawmakers: Don’t vote “yes” on this bill just so Florida’s kids can be assured recess.

More here.

Photo credit: Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

May 05, 2017

Mammoth education budget bill will decide testing, recess, teacher bonus policies and more

Florida Legislature (7)


At the insistence of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, numerous major changes to education policy for Florida’s K-12 public schools — from teacher bonuses and daily recess, to testing reforms and expansions for charter schools — were crammed into a single mammoth bill on Friday, with $414 million in spending attached.

All of the policies in the the 278-page bill (HB 7069) will pass or fail as one on Monday, when lawmakers vote on the annual budget.

No changes can be made to the bill. House and Senate members have less than two days to make sense of it before they must cast an up-or-down vote.

If lawmakers’ pass it, the bill ties the hand of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Should he want to veto the bill, he would be politically responsible for shooting down every policy in it — particularly the parent-demanded daily recess measure.

Corcoran told reporters it wasn’t political strategy to link all of the policies together, but he showed his cards a week ago when he tweeted after midnight Saturday that “the problem with recess is the governor not the Legislature.” (He pointed out Friday that that tweet ended up being true and was simply “just a week early.”)

But the sheer size and scope of the new version of HB 7069 caught many lawmakers by surprise — even those closely involved in negotiating the compromise between both parties and both chambers.

Several senators, in particular, were troubled by the process and said the bill wouldn’t automatically have their support.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Senate President Joe Negron, center right, watches as Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran, left, and House members work out budget differences during a budget conference late afternoon Friday, May 5, 2017 at the Florida Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. Mark Wallheiser/AP

Parents could more easily object to books, lesson materials in public schools

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Moms and dads will have more power to challenge their child’s classroom books or other lesson materials that parents deem distasteful, offensive or inappropriate for public schools, under a bill the Florida Legislature passed Friday.

Lawmakers argue county school boards aren’t giving parents a fair say to contest instructional materials, and that HB 989 only “tightens up that process.” But opponents fear it makes it easier for parents to object on philosophical grounds to some core topics their children are taught — such as evolution or sex education, or historical events, like slavery or the Holocaust.

Senators approved the bill, 19-17, after about 40 minutes of debate Friday. Miami-Dade Republican Sens. Anitere Flores and René García opposed it with the chamber’s 15 Democrats.

Senate sponsor Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, said critics’ concerns about extreme complaints were unwarranted because he said the legislation limits what kind of objections parents could make.

The bill states parents and residents of a school district can challenge any classroom materials, library books or reading lists that contain “pornographic” content or “is not suited to student needs and their ability to comprehend the material presented, or is inappropriate for the grade level and age group.”

It’s that vague language — as well as how the bill defines the “resident” who can make the challenge — that has Democrats most concerned. They also worry it overrides the authority of elected school board members.

“This seems to go a lot farther than a lot of us think makes sense,” Miami Democratic Sen. José Javier Rodríguez said.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

Senate OK’s school voucher expansion; House still to sign off


With reluctance by several Democrats, senators on Friday morning endorsed significant expansions to two of Florida’s premiere voucher-like programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children to afford private school.

Senators approved HB 15 by a 27-11 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support. The House has to vote again this afternoon to approve the same language as the Senate, so that the bill can go to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.

The bill’s passage would mark another session victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.

Corcoran opened the 2017 session by prioritizing, in particular, growing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is facilitated almost entirely by a single organization that is led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate. The controversial scholarship aids low-income, mostly minority families by giving dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate money, which then pays for private school scholarships.

HB 15 calls for raising the award amounts so that families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive.

Several Democratic senators said they didn’t want to “divert” more dollars to the tax credits — dollars they argue could otherwise go to improving K-12 public schools — and they struggled with voting “no” because they do support the Gardiner Scholarship to help children with disabilities.

By putting the two programs in a single bill, House Republicans linked the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship to that of the tax-credit awards — meaning lawmakers could not expand one voucher program without the other.

“The Gardiner Scholarship program is a fantastic program, so I want desperately to be able to support this bill because of those provisions ... but I am philosophically opposed to corporate tax vouchers and diverting money away from our general funds, which could be used to improve our public school system,” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said.

Proponents of the bill defended against the criticism of the tax credit scholarships.

“If we want to keep from failing our children, we have got to support this program and we have got to support these children who have no hope without it,” Tampa Republican Sen. Dana Young said.

Democrats Daphne Campbell of Miami Shores, Bill Montford of Tallahassee, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg and Linda Stewart of Orlando broke with the rest of their caucus and voted “yes.”

Testing reforms in House's hands on lawmakers' final day to pass policy

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After several days of private collaboration among lawmakers, one major late-night rewrite and some last-minute tweaks, senators unanimously passed a sweeping education bill on Thursday — the main feature of which is to address excessive testing in Florida’s public schools.

HB 549 eliminates only a single test — the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam — and it requires the state Department of Education to study by Jan. 1 whether national exams, like the SAT or ACT, can be used as alternatives to the Florida Standards Assessments and other statewide tests.

The results of that study could spur further action by lawmakers in the 2018 session to curb duplicative testing, which several senators had hoped to accomplish this year.

“Is this bill what I wanted? No. I wanted more, but ... I know that, at least, this is a good beginning,” said Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former Leon County schools superintendent whose opinion on education policy is well-respected by the chamber.

HB 549 was the subject of prolonged haggling this week between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, and between the Senate and the House. It now goes to the House for final approval Friday, the last day lawmakers can vote on standalone policy legislation this session.

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, left, with Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times.

May 04, 2017

A possible explanation for why the House hasn't heard school recess


Because Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, hasn't brought the Senate-approved recess bill to the House floor (and there are no indications of that changing), the fate of that proposal now rests almost entirely on negotiations between the House and Senate over a massive education policy bill that must be resolved by the end of Friday.

Although session extended until Monday, that extra time applies only to the budget and "conforming" policy bills linked to that. All other run-of-the-mill policy bills -- such as the one mandating 20 minutes of daily recess in elementary schools -- die when floor sessions end Friday, the original scheduled end of session.

To keep recess in the conversation, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores included it in a 72-page rewrite of another education bill that was published late Wednesday and could be heard on the Senate floor Thursday.

MORE: "Short on time, lawmakers seek to cram in new education policies — from testing to recess"

But why is school recess -- a measure overwhelmingly wanted by parents and one that could easily pass the House if brought to the floor -- up for negotiation in the first place?

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, offered one possible explanation Wednesday.

"That's a good question. We got to this point in session, and it's still up in the air, but as the speaker, I believe, said it’s still in play," Diaz said, adding: "We didn’t take that up, but if you look at it holistically, why didn’t they [the Senate] take up the single-policy education bills that we sent over?"

"We didn’t take up recess? I’ll shoot back and say, 'why didn’t you take up the schools of [hope]?' That’s the same for both sides," he added. "I’d have love to have been passing these individual policies, so it was clear and transparent. We sent them over but they’re not being picked up."

Corcoran previously has declined interview requests from the Herald/Times to discuss the recess bill, and he hasn't publicly explained why he won't take up the Senate bill as parents have pleaded with him to do through now more than a thousand emails and many dozen phone calls. Corcoran, a couple weeks ago, said there was still time to address recess, but he made no guarantees it would be heard.

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