March 31, 2017

Florida House backs protections for murder witnesses' identities

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@ByKristenMClark

The examples of tragedy in Rep. Cynthia Stafford’s district are almost too many for the Miami Democrat to list, but she offered a few to the Florida House on Thursday:

▪ “A 10-year-old retrieving his basketball in his front yard, shot and killed.”

▪ “An 8-year-old girl shot and killed, walking out of her front yard.”

▪ “A straight-A student on her way to college — the valedictorian of her class with a full scholarship — shot and killed riding in her car.”

“In each of these instances, someone knows what happens, but they’re afraid to come forward,” said Stafford, who represents areas that include Opa-locka, Liberty City and parts of Miami Gardens.

Stafford hopes legislation she proposed will give murder witnesses more incentive to talk with police, and the Florida House endorsed her bill Thursday by a near-unanimous vote.

More here.

Photo credit:Matias J. Ocner / For the Miami Herald

March 30, 2017

House education chairman: I’ve been clear where I stand on school recess

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@ByKristenMClark

The only lawmaker on record still opposing state-required daily recess in Florida’s elementary schools wields a lot of power over education policy this session.

But Miami Republican and House education chairman Michael Bileca won’t say whether he intervened to water down this year’s recess bill to eliminate the daily requirement and cut off guaranteed recess from more than 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders in Florida.

“I think I’ve made the thoughts that I’ve had on recess clear, so how they chose to change it is how they chose to change it to move things through,” Bileca told the Herald/Times.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times 

March 29, 2017

'Best & Brightest' expansion ready for full House vote

@ByKristenMClark

A bill to expand the controversial "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program is ready for a full House vote, after clearing the 30-member Appropriations Committee this afternoon on a party-line vote.

HB 7069 was fast-tracked to the floor in the past three weeks, with only two committee hearings. It's unclear how fast the House will take up the bill; it could be as early as next week.

The expansion proposal allows more "highly effective" teachers and — for the first time — principals to qualify for an annual bonus. Instead of only using on the teachers' SAT or ACT scores from high school, teachers could qualify next year by also using graduate school entrance exam scores, like the GRE or the LSAT.

MORE: "Another budget showdown looms over ‘Best & Brightest’ teacher bonuses"

The number of educators who would be eligible for the money would increase greatly. Pre-K-12 Education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said he doesn’t yet have an estimate for how many might be eligible, but he told the Appropriations Committee funding it at $214 million -- as the House proposes to do -- is intended to keep the awards at around $10,000 per person.

With those figures, that would be enough to cover bonuses for potentially more than 21,000 teachers and principals statewide.

In 2015-16, about 5,300 teachers qualified and received $8,248 each. This school year, nearly 7,200 teachers qualified and each got $6,816. (There are about 188,300 certified teachers statewide.)

Democrats on the Appropriations Committee said they still don’t like the premise of rewarding teachers based on assessment scores and they want the Legislature to use the additional funding to instead find a way to raise the salaries of all teachers.

“We just need to give our teachers raises and stop beating around the bush in how we do it,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park.

Diaz blasted the Democrats’ opposition. “Here’s a bill that puts $200 million into teacher’s pockets and we’re saying ‘no,’” he said. 

UPDATED: Prepare for another budget showdown over 'Best & Brightest' bonuses

SP_409499_KEEL_2_FLGOV@ByKristenMClark

While both the House and Senate are interested in more than quadrupling funding to expand the “Best & Brightest” teacher bonus program next year, only the House actually proposes a dollar figure in its initial budget plan.

Both chambers’ education budget plans were unveiled Tuesday in advance of the full budget roll-out this week.

The House plan calls for $214 million in the 2017-18 budget for the teacher bonuses, up from the $49 million the Legislature allocated this year. But the Senate proposal zeros out the program funding — setting up another year of negotiations over the controversial program.

“That’s part of the process; this is not the first go-around with that in dealing with the Senate,” said Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman. “That’s par for the course.”

MORE: “$250 million for teacher incentives? Florida lawmakers crafting plan to do it”

Senate Pre-K-12 Education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, revealed in February that lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were interested in expanding the “Best & Brightest” program so that teachers could be eligible in more ways than just their SAT/ACT score from high school and so that principals could also qualify for bonus dollars.

Simmons said then the House was exploring potentially $250 million for next year, which he said the Senate was supportive of.

He told reporters Wednesday morning that not including “Best & Brightest” in the Senate’s initial budget proposal is part of a strategic move to ensure the Senate gets some of its priorities, too, in budget negotiations.

“That’s a matter that we’re going to discuss and I believe when we put our budget together, it’s with the expectation that we will be dealing with that issue,” Simmons said, “and we want very much to accommodate the House on that issue — and that’s part of the give and take. We know that this is important [to them].”

More here.

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

[originally posted 5:30 a.m.; updated 10:15 a.m.]

March 28, 2017

Florida House's school recess bill no longer requires daily recess

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@ByKristenMClark

Florida parents seeking more recess time for their children suffered a setback Tuesday, when state lawmakers significantly watered down a proposal that was supposed to require 20 minutes of daily recess for all public elementary students.

Members of a House subcommittee were willing to give students more recess time during the school week — but not nearly to the extent that parents have fought for for more than a year and that many lawmakers previously supported.

The original bill — which remains intact in the Senate — called for “at least 100 minutes of supervised, safe, and unstructured free-play recess each week,” 20 minutes per day, for the nearly 1.3 million Florida children in kindergarten through fifth grade.

But under the House’s amended bill, recess would be legally required at most two days a week, and a third of all elementary students — 430,000 fourth- and fifth-graders statewide — won’t have any guarantees of recess.

The changes to HB 67 by the Pre-K-12 Innovation Subcommittee drew immediate criticism from “recess moms” and opposition from health and wellness experts because it clashes with research-based recommendations that endorse daily recess, separate from physical education classes.

Although 56 House members — or roughly half of the 120-member chamber — had signed on to co-sponsor the original version, bill sponsor and Orlando Republican Rep. Rene Plasencia said Tuesday the revisions were necessary to ensure the bill would be considered in committee.

Full details here.

Photo credit: Kindergarten students head out to the playground for recess at Citrus Grove Elementary School on Thursday, February 9, 2017. Florida lawmakers are again considering a statewide mandate for daily recess in public elementary schools. Patrick Farrell / Miami Herald

'This is an abomination,' senator says of political games surrounding testing reforms

IMG_Testing_file_art@ByKristenMClark

Efforts by the state Senate to address too much standardized testing in Florida’s public schools this year are on the rocks after a key proposal was abruptly postponed Monday when one senator objected to what he called an “abomination” of the legislative process.

After forcing the delay, veteran Republican and former Senate President Tom Lee blasted his own party leaders for last-minute political tactics and for “stealing” components of a popular Democratic bill in order to salvage a separate reform proposal from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who is No. 2 in the chamber behind Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

“There’s right and there’s wrong, and just because Sen. [Bill] Montford is a member of the minority party — that’s the only reason his legislation isn’t up,” Lee, of Thonotosassa, told reporters. “This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.”

Lee added: “This is just such a flawed process to undergo, and I’m embarrassed by it. As a member of the Senate that’s been here 15 years and believes this process ought to work off of mutual trust and respect for the process, this is an abomination.”

More here.

Photo credit: Miami Herald file photo

March 22, 2017

Miami-Dade-backed legislation cracking down on 'rogue' condo associations advances

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@ByKristenMClark

A plan from Miami-Dade lawmakers to penalize fraud and abuse in condominium associations earned unanimous initial approval in House and Senate committees this week.

The bills, most notably, impose new criminal penalties for falsifying association documents, committing fraud in association elections and refusing to turn over administrative records, among other reforms.

"A lot of these reforms are a long time coming," said Sen. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, who is sponsoring the Senate bill (SB 1682) with Sen. René García, R-Hialeah. The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 8-0 to advance their bill Wednesday.

More here.

Photo credit: Hundreds of Miami-Dade County condominium owners marched in protest in the city of Doral on April 16, 2016. Roberto Koltun / el Nuevo Herald

March 06, 2017

'Dramatic' reforms in play for all levels of public education

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@ByKristenMClark

Every level of Florida’s public education system — affecting kindergarten to university students — faces some measure of drastic reform in the upcoming legislative session that begins Tuesday.

Just some of what’s on the table:

▪ “Dramatic” expansions of school choice alternatives in K-12 public schools and the state’s voucher-like scholarship programs are a top priority of Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran. His education chairmen also have grand goals of narrowing the achievement gap for the state’s lowest-performing schools by attracting and expanding innovative educational options.

▪ The operations of Florida’s 28 public colleges could be reined in over what some senators see as unnecessary competition with the state’s public universities, sparking a need for more oversight.

▪ And the State University System itself faces a changed future as Republican Senate President Joe Negron seeks to make Florida’s 12 public universities globally competitive with the likes of the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan.

It’s a bold, sweeping agenda for both the House and Senate — intentionally so, Republican leaders say.

More here.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

February 28, 2017

Roads named for celebrities are OK, but not laws named to honor the people who inspired them

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@ByKristenMClark

Mayra Capote was a 15-year-old freshman at Hialeah-Miami Lakes Senior High School when she and two other students were killed in a car accident in September 1999 as they rushed back to school from an open-campus lunch break.

In the weeks afterward, Miami-Dade public schools changed district policy to prevent students from leaving school grounds during the lunch hour. And in the nearly 18 years since, Hialeah Republican Sen. René García has tried several times to prevent future tragedies statewide by seeking a Florida law affecting all public high schools.

With his most recent attempt this year, García sought to name the proposed law directly in honor of Mayra.

But her name was abruptly deleted from the bill last week — at the request of Senate President Joe Negron.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Mayra Capote, 15, and two high school students died in a car accident in 1999 while coming back to school from an open-lunch break. Hialeah Republican Sen. René García this year wanted to name a proposed state law after the younger Mayra, but the 15-year-old’s name was taken out of his bill at Senate President Joe Negron’s request. (Herald file photo)

February 09, 2017