February 17, 2016

Rep. Fresen's school capital funding reform bill ready for Florida House floor


After more debate, a contentious plan to reform how traditional public schools and charter schools get money for capital costs -- and how they can use those dollars -- is on its way to the Florida House floor for consideration.

The House Education Committee advanced the proposal by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen on Wednesday morning by a 13-4 vote. Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in support, while the rest of the panel's Democrats opposed it.

It was the second and final hearing for Fresen's proposal since it was amended onto a related education bill last week by the House Appropriations Committee.

Fresen's proposal (in HB 873) is two-fold. Primarily, it calls for reining in school districts' spending on capital costs, by holding all available revenues -- including locally raised dollars -- to a state cap on what it costs to build the space for each student. Fresen has presented data showing what he calls excessive cost-overruns by districts in the past 10 years, findings that superintendents argue are too simplistic.

"If, at whatever point, the locals are not dealing with that, we need to create a system where that doesn’t happen anymore," Fresen said.

The more controversial part of the proposal would force districts to share some of their local tax revenue with charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Fresen said his goal is equitable funding for charter schools and he's offering "a formula that’s blind to politics."

Continue reading "Rep. Fresen's school capital funding reform bill ready for Florida House floor" »

February 16, 2016

Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade school board members advocate for district priorities in Tallahassee



Six Miami-Dade County School Board members and district Superintendent Alberto Carvalho are in Tallahassee today, meeting with local lawmakers and testifying on some bills that had hearings before legislative committees.

Carvalho also met with Republican Gov. Rick Scott this afternoon, which Carvalho said earlier today would be a routine affair that's "just one more opportunity to re-state our priorities."

He said those include equity in funding (including capital dollars), the state's education accountability system and an emphasis on students learning the English language, among other topics.

Funding for school districts' capital dollars has been a controversial and prominent topic recently. Lawmakers in both chambers are set to begin negotiations this week on the next state budget, where they'll compromise on how much in capital dollars school districts and privately managed charter schools should get. This comes as lawmakers are considering a proposal spearheaded by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen that would require school districts to give to charter schools some of their state funding for maintenance and repairs.

Carvalho told the Herald/Times that changing the funding formula for school districts and how they use local and state tax dollars "could be rather devastating to the financial stability of our district long-term," and in the short term, he said, it could be "rather impactful or catastrophic in terms of our maintenance needs and everyday construction renovation needs."

Continue reading "Alberto Carvalho, Miami-Dade school board members advocate for district priorities in Tallahassee" »

Florida League of Women Voters, with guest U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, to speak against lawmakers' plan for a state charter authorizer


The Florida League of Women Voters announced today that Florida Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson will join the group at a press conference Wednesday where members of the league will discuss what they describe as an "egregious constitutional amendment" proposed by Republican state lawmakers that would set up a statewide charter school district.

In a revised press release, the league later clarified that Nelson "will speak in support of the league's hard work registering voters, as well as efforts at fairness during reapportionment and Amendment 1 issues," while league President Pamela Goodman and "educational organizations" will focus their comments on the charter school issue.

The event begins at 11:30 a.m. on the steps of the Old Capitol in downtown Tallahassee.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, have proposed creating a statewide board that would "authorize, operate, control, and supervise" charter schools across Florida.

The House is expected to vote on its version (HJR 759) this week, while the Senate version (SJR 976) has stalled in committee. (Stargel's bill was supposed to be heard in late January by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, but was temporarily postponed and hasn't been scheduled for consideration again since.)

Diaz has said the bill wouldn't remove local school boards' power to authorize charter schools, but public school officials fear it would because private entities aiming to set up charter schools could circumvent local board approval by submitting applications directly to the state.

The Legislature 10 years ago tried to create a state-authorizing body for charter schools but it was struck down in the courts. Diaz's and Stargel's bills would send to voters a constitutional amendment to codify the charter school authorizer in the Florida Constitution.

Constitutional amendments must be approved by three-fifths of both the House and Senate: 72 members in the House and 24 in the Senate. Then, the proposal must get 60-percent approval from voters in order to change the Constitution.

February 14, 2016

Miami lawmaker's ties to charter schools prompt lingering questions

@cveiga and @ByKristenMClark

A familiar face is back at the center of a perennial tug-of-war in the Florida Legislature between privately-managed charter schools and district-run public schools over taxpayer money for construction projects:

Erik Fresen, the Miami Republican who controls the purse for education funding in the Florida House. His connections to the charter school industry continue to raise questions about conflicts of interest.

He has fast-tracked a mid-session bill that would limit school district spending on capital needs. It would also force districts to share their construction tax money with charters.

Fresen is a $150,000-a-year land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica — which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.

Fresen says he simply wants to hold districts accountable for the money they spend and ensure equitable funding for charter schools, which are classified as public schools.

“Nothing in this bill has anything to do with anything that I do for a living,” he said.

But Fresen, 39, is dogged by questions that his goal isn’t so well-intentioned.

More here.

February 12, 2016

Alan Grayson echoes conservatives, slams Patrick Murphy super PAC over donor with ties to visa program


U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando, is attacking his Democratic opponent in Florida's U.S. Senate race over donations a pro-Patrick Murphy super PAC received from a wealthy donor who stands to benefit from legislation Murphy supported two years ago (but which he hasn't signed on to this session).

Grayson's swipe at the Jupiter congressman comes a day after Grayson himself took heat in the media when The New York Times delved deeper into Grayson's hedge fund management controversy, which the Tampa Bay Times has also reported on.

In a rarity, Grayson's attack on Murphy allies the progressive Democrat with a conservative super PAC, American Crossroads, which has been blasting Murphy on the same donor issue for weeks.

In its most recent campaign finance disclosure, "Floridians for a Strong Middle Class" -- which was established last spring to help Murphy's campaign for U.S. Senate -- reported a $50,000 donation from "230 East 63rd-6 Trust LLC" amid $500,000 in contributions it collected since July. (Murphy's father also donated $200,000 to the super PAC, records showed. Super PACs are not bound by contribution limits nor can they coordinate directly with the candidate.)

As the Herald/Times previously reported, Florida business registration filings show the trust company is an "inactive" business venture associated with Nicholas Mastroianni II. Mastroianni developed the $150 million Harbourside project in Murphy's home city of Jupiter in Palm Beach County. Mastroianni's son, Anthony, also gave $5,000 to the super PAC, the filing showed.

Fortune two years ago profiled Nicholas Mastroianni as someone who benefits from the EB-5 visa program, which the magazine said "essentially allows wealthy foreigners to buy U.S. citizenship by investing $500,000 in a project that creates U.S. jobs."

In 2014, Murphy was one of seven co-sponsors on a bill that would have made the EB-5 program permanent, but the bill died in committee. 

“The bills that Murphy sponsors appear to carry price tags,” Grayson spokesman David Damron said in the campaign statement today. “Patrick’s Daddy PAC should return these deceptive LLC donations. They have the look of someone trying to hide a pay to play scheme.”

It's unclear how Mastroianni's latest donations equate to "pay to play," though, because Murphy has not co-sponsored a similar measure introduced during this session of Congress.

The EB-5 visa program has been reauthorized for two decades, with bipartisan support. The permanent extension of it was also included in 2013 immigration reform legislation, which both Murphy and Grayson supported.

Grayson and Murphy are battling it out for the August Democratic primary in the race to replace Marco Rubio in the U.S. Senate.

Grayson has drawn passionate support from grassroots progressive donors, while Murphy has the backing of the party establishment. Murphy has so far out-fundraised not only Grayson but also each of the four major candidates in the Republican primary.

February 10, 2016

Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July


State senators peppered education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz with questions on and off for an hour Wednesday afternoon about the Niceville Republican's plan to change how after-school and mentoring programs are funded, as the chamber started deliberating its budget plan for 2016-17.

Gaetz's proposal involves pooling together existing program funding from the departments of Education and Juvenile Justice (which currently go to about a half-dozen or so designated organizations, like Big Brothers Big Sisters or Boys & Girls Clubs), adding more dollars to that pot and creating a $30 million competitive grant program.

Gaetz says it would make a more fair process, free of lobbying and politics, and open up the dollars to more non-profit organizations that provide aftercare services to Florida children. (More here.)

Republican Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and several Democratic senators scrutinized the details of Gaetz's proposal during discussion on the Senate floor -- voicing skepticism through their questions that the plan could be implemented for the next budget year, which starts July 1, without affecting a funding stream that programs rely on.

They suggested a couple months wasn't enough time to set up the new state-appointed board that would vet program providers and decide which got how much money.

"I think President Gaetz is on to something that’s a good thing, because it becomes more of a fairness issue and a ranking issue, but it’s in the implementation that we have to look at this a little more closely," Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said.

Gaetz countered every criticizing question with a defense.

Continue reading "Senators skeptical proposed changes to after-school funding could be in place by July" »

Love and hate for Miami Sen. Diaz de la Portilla who hasn't taken up gun bills

Miguel dlp 020816


Senate Judiciary Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla has received a lot of praise and a lot of fury, ever since the Miami Republican announced his decision last month that he wouldn't hear a bill allowing concealed weapons on the state's public college and university campuses.

It was the second-straight year that Diaz de la Portilla made that decision, so it wasn't an unforeseen outcome for the legislation, which is now all-but-dead despite easily passing the House last week.

Diaz de la Portilla has grown increasingly reluctant to take up a similar bill that would allow concealed-weapons permit-holders to openly carry -- which the senator said this week is "on life support."

He told the Herald/Times today that it won't be on next week's judiciary agenda, and the committee might hold only one more meeting after that.

He acknowledged he's been getting "hate mail" for not hearing either the open-carry or campus-carry bills, but he shrugs off the criticism.

"I don't feel any pressure at all," he said. "I'm going to make what I think is a good decision based on sound policy reasons and it's no different than any other issue."

That's not stopping gun-rights advocates -- who are livid -- from trying to turn up the heat and persuade him to change his mind, particularly on campus-carry.

"Senator Diaz de la Portilla has taken it upon himself to unilaterally decide the future of a bipartisan bill that the vast majority of legislative members support," Florida Students for Concealed Carry state director Bekah Hargrove said in a statement this week. "He has made a mockery of the American legislative branch and turned Florida’s legislative process into a one-man show, without respect for the safety of college students."

She added: "He should be removed from his office for ignoring his duty to put bills up for a vote." Download Open Letter

Both the student group and Florida Carry have accused Diaz de la Portilla of refusing to meet with Shayna Lopez-Rivas, a rape victim who has testified at every legislative hearing that was held. She has said that if she had had the ability as a student to carry a gun, she feels she wouldn't have been raped.

"He has refused repeated requests to meet with supporters of Pro-Second Amendment bills," Florida Carry said in an email blast today urging its 37,000 members to call on Diaz de la Portilla to take up both campus-carry and open-carry.

Meanwhile, groups that support gun-control regulations and keeping guns off college campuses are thanking Diaz de la Portilla for his "courage" in choosing not to take up the bills, which are priorities for the powerful National Rifle Association.

"I write to commend you for your courage and steadfast commitment to student safety," Dana Bolger, executive director for Know Your IX (a national campus sexual assault prevention organization), wrote in a letter to Diaz de la Portilla that was given to the Herald/Times. Download Know Your IX Letter to Senator Diaz de la Portilla (The same letter was also sent to Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.)

"I can say with confidence that allowing students to carry concealed weapons on campuses would have dangerous and potentially fatal consequences for Florida students, particularly for women and other marginalized students," Bolger wrote. "Some proponents of HB 4001 and SB 68 have suggested that allowing students to carry guns will protect them from becoming victims of sexual assault. This could not be further from the truth."

February 09, 2016

Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee


The House Appropriations Committee will take up legislation this afternoon that could significantly change how public schools use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

The topic of school districts' construction spending has been a flash-point between education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and the state's superintendents' association during the past couple of weeks.

A proposed committee substitute version of HB 873 brings to fruition Fresen's promise to rein in what he and other House leaders have argued is a “disturbing pattern” of districts' “glaringly and grossly” exceeding a state-imposed cap on how much in state dollars they can spend on capital projects. About 30 percent of projects statewide during the last 10 years or so went over the cap, according to Fresen.

The substitute bill goes even farther, too, by addressing charter schools' capital needs and forcing districts to assist with funding them in addition to traditional schools.

Continue reading "Broad changes to school construction funding to go before Florida House budget committee" »

February 08, 2016

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


Welcome to Week 5 of the 2016 session. Wednesday marks the halfway point! Most lawmakers will be back in town by this afternoon for committee meetings, with a regular schedule of work resuming Tuesday.

Here are some items we're watching today.

* Should future legislative sessions starts in January? The House government operations budget committee will consider a bill to do that for not next year, but in 2018. If enacted, that would mean a full year between the end of this session and the start of the 2017 session next March, but then another short window between 2017 and 2018 sessions. The hearing starts at 3.

* A Senate committee will take up a nondiscrimination bill for LGBT Floridians. It's the first time the legislation has ever had a hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee at 1:30 p.m. will consider the controversial bill, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's civil rights protection laws, but it's already garnered opposition from social conservative and religious groups.

* Also before the Senate Judiciary Committee: a non-binding "memorial" urging Congress to repeal the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which is often referred to as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy. It's on the agenda but it could get postponed until Tuesday. The House version also is slated to be heard Tuesday.

* This afternoon, the Senate Criminal Justice will consider fixing Florida's death penalty in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed its sentencing procedure unconstitutional. Unlike the House, the Senate is proposing to go all the way and require unanimous jury recommendations. The hearing begins at 4.

* Community leaders from the western part of Tampa Bay will spend the evening at the Capitol, with "Leadership Pinellas" hosting a reception on the 22nd floor.

February 05, 2016

Attention, parents: Sample score reports unveiled for 2016 statewide assessments



State education officials are letting teachers and parents know what the new, redesigned score reports will look like for this year's Florida Standards Assessments, which students will take this spring.

Education Commissioner Pam Stewart first discussed the new score reports with the State Board of Education in early January, and her department rolled them out officially Friday afternoon so parents will know what to expect when they get their children's scores.

There's also a new website to help teachers, parents and students understand the information presented on the score reports.

“Our goal is to ensure Floridians have access to an education system that prepares all students for future success," Stewart said in a statement. "The standardized statewide assessments and the corresponding score reports are critical to achieving that goal because they provide students, parents and educators insight into what students have learned."

"By knowing how well students grasped the information they are expected to know in each grade level, these individuals can work together to make adjustments that will lead to greater success in the future," Stewart said.

Score reports for all statewide standardized assessments are distributed to parents and students through their school districts.

The new design was prompted by lengthy discussions among state board members and Stewart over terminology -- such as "satisfactory" or "proficient" -- and concerns that words are used interchangeably instead of what they actually mean in relation to students' scores.

The Education Department highlighted these new features of the report:

-- Color-coded levels (1-5), so it is apparent which level the student achieved at first glance;

-- clear explanation of what each level means, including the difference between “satisfactory” and “proficient,” with additional detail about the level that the student achieved;

-- comparison of the student’s performance to other students in their school, district and the state;

-- and, references to specific DOE websites that offer resources parents and students can use to increase preparation for the next grade/course. 

Image credit: Florida Department of Education