May 03, 2016

'A fire burning' to keep expanding school choice in Florida, Hialeah lawmaker says

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@ByKristenMClark

The Legislature's approval of a massive education bill and other innovative policies this spring has reinvigorated the "school choice" movement in Florida, a key Miami-Dade lawmaker said Tuesday.

In the past few years, "there was a complacency," state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said. "What I heard from my colleagues was, 'so much has been done, we have to see what works.' I’m saying, 'we don't have time for that.' 

"I was pleasantly surprised this session," he added. "The stars aligned and we were able to push some things through... a lot of revolutionary things."

And Floridians can expect that wave of policies to continue in upcoming legislative sessions, said Diaz -- who's in line to be the next chairman of either the House Education Committee or the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee under incoming speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

"It's clearly awoken," Diaz said of the push for school choice. "There is a political will you see in the incoming leadership; there is a fire burning. We’re headed in that direction and they’ll be a charge led from the top."

Diaz's remarks came during a luncheon in downtown Miami on Tuesday about the benefits of school choice in Florida. The discussion was sponsored by the James Madison Institute -- a Tallahassee-based free market think tank, which supports school choice policies.

More here.

Photo credit: Republican State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., center, speaks during a panel discussion about educational choice, sponsored by the James Madison Institute, on Tuesday at the the InterContinental Miami Hotel. (Sabrina Paz Riesgo / Influence Communications)

April 20, 2016

A GOP battle royale in South Dade: Lynda Bell vs. David Rivera

@PatriciaMazzei

Setting up a South Florida Republican battle royale, former Miami-Dade County Commissioner Lynda Bell plans to run for a Florida House of Representatives seat -- against former U.S. Rep. David Rivera.

Bell, who announced her candidacy late Tuesday at a meeting of the Old Cutler Republican Women's Club, told the Miami Herald on Wednesday that she looked at two open House seats in South Dade before settling on District 118, which includes neighborhoods she represented in her four-year term on the commission

"I'm not here to beat up on David Rivera, but I know I served 10 years in office, and I feel like I have a lot to offer," said Bell, who previously served as Homestead mayor. "I've accomplished very, very much."

Bell doesn't live in the district, which extends from West Miami-Dade to Richmond Heights, but said she'd move there by Election Day, as required by law. She thought about running in neighboring District 114 -- also not her home district -- but said she didn't want to challenge one of the Republicans already running, John Couriel, whom she called "a really great guy."

Neither of her choices was ideal: Both districts are heavily Hispanic, especially among likely Republican primary voters. Bell's long-shot bid might be based on the idea that other Hispanic Republicans could split the vote to her benefit, given her name recognition, but winning probably won't be easy.

More here.

April 15, 2016

Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal charges

HousePhotoOriginal5880@ByKristenMClark

A Democratic state representative from Jacksonville has been indicted on more than a dozen federal wire fraud and tax charges and is accused of embezzling campaign funds for personal expenses, ranging from restaurants to jewelry stores.

U.S. Attorney A. Lee Bentley III announced the charges today against Reggie Fullwood -- a three-term state representative who, this past session, was the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

Fullwood, 41, faces 10 counts of wire fraud and four counts of failure to file federal income tax returns. If convicted, he faces up to 20 years in federal prison for each wire fraud offense, and a year of imprisonment for each failure to file charge.

Fullwood turned himself into federal authorities on Friday and pleaded not guilty during an initial court appearance in Florida’s Middle District of U.S. District Court in Jacksonville. It lasted 20 minutes.

He was released under a $10,000 bond that he has to pay only if he fails to appear at future hearings, court records show. He was also required to surrender his passport to his attorney.

Continue reading "Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood indicted on federal charges" »

March 29, 2016

Looking for something to do in Miami? How about a political fundraiser?

@PatriciaMazzei

Good-bye, spring break. Farewell, Florida's presidential primary. See you soon, legislative session. Now that all that has been taken care of, it's time for Florida House and Senate candidates to begin campaigning in earnest.

Three fundraisers are scheduled to take place in Miami between Tuesday and Wednesday nights alone, and that's just for Republican candidates. (A fourth event is planned in Tallahassee.) Contenders have struggled to get political donors' attention, what with two Miami Republicans running for president until recently, an open U.S. Senate seat and a slew of congressional contests.

Here are invitations to the four GOP events:

Continue reading "Looking for something to do in Miami? How about a political fundraiser?" »

March 18, 2016

What all was in the Florida Legislature's final "school choice" bill?

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@ByKristenMClark

In one of their final votes of the 2016 session, Florida lawmakers passed sweeping "school choice" legislation with numerous changes to the state's education policies, affecting schools from pre-K through college and university.

The final, approved version of HB 7029 -- released Thursday, reflecting changes lawmakers made prior to the final vote late last week -- came in at 160 pages. 

We read through it to break down exactly what is in this proposed law, which is still pending Republican Gov. Rick Scott's approval.

There are literally dozens of new policies that would be enacted, so if you want to know every little detail, we suggest reading it for yourself, but here are the major highlights:

Continue reading "What all was in the Florida Legislature's final "school choice" bill?" »

Direct funding for after-school programs intact, despite Senate's push for competitive grant

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@ByKristenMClark

How Florida gives state money to organizations that provide after-school care, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters and the Boys & Girls Clubs, won’t change anytime soon.

The 2016-17 budget that Gov. Rick Scott signed Thursday maintains a decades-old funding structure that designates money to a handful of prominent organizations — which means an ambitious, but controversial, reform plan pitched by Republican Senate leaders is on hold for at least another year.

Administrators of affected groups said they are glad lawmakers didn’t embrace the Senate’s idea to create a competitive grant process this year. The proposed program — introduced midway through the nine-week session — would have included several million dollars more in available aid, but it would’ve made many more non-profits eligible for a single pot of money.

Traditional programs opposed creating a competitive grant on such short notice, fearing it would have caused their funding to, at best, be interrupted or, at worst, be cut. The taxpayer aid helps pay for homework assistance, mentoring and gang-prevention services for children and teens often living in Florida’s most vulnerable and impoverished communities.

More here.

Photo credit: House and Senate Appropriations Chairmen Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, talk to the media on Sunday, March 6, 2016, after a budget conference meeting at the Capitol in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER / Tampa Bay Times

March 14, 2016

Florida 2016 legislative elections 'our opportunity,' FEA president McCall says

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Florida Education Association president Joanne McCall has big ambitions for the state's 2016 legislative elections.

Many lawmakers who have been unfriendly to the teacher union's view of public education will depart, while others face more realistic challenges than they have in the past. It's a chance, McCall said, to begin changing the complexion of Tallahassee education politics.

"The message I'm sending to all my members is, this is our opportunity," she said. "Fair Districts has given us just that, fairer districts where people can actually compete."

FEA officials are analyzing the newly drawn state Senate map, with an eye toward targeting districts where it sees the possibility of influencing the outcome, supporting "people that can win and won't forget why they came to Tallahassee."

Campaigns can be costly and demanding, McCall acknowledged, and the organization wants to be effective and strategic in its efforts. It isn't likely to jump into races where its type of candidate has no chance, she said, because that's just not worth the effort. The FEA also will have to work to get out the vote, she added.

"We have an opportunity to change the debate in this state," McCall said. "I think we'll see a different kind of Tallahassee each and every year."

Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee

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@ByKristenMClark

A Tallahassee judge heard opening arguments this morning in a month-long civil trial that could up-end Florida's entire education system.

Attorneys representing Citizens for Strong Schools want Leon County Circuit Court Judge George S. Reynolds III to declare that the Florida Department of Education -- and by extension, the Florida Legislature -- has failed to fulfill its constitutionally mandated "paramount duty" to provide a "high quality" education for all public school students.

A constitutional amendment in 1998 requires the state to make "adequate provision(s) ... for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools."

Attorneys for the advocacy group argue the state hasn't done that, citing -- among other complaints -- the lack of parity in student achievement for minority students in Florida public schools.

But attorneys for the Department of Education and the Legislature counter that, while there's still more work to be done, Florida's education system has come a long way in the past 20 years.

The two sides started laying out their arguments today in the non-jury trial, which is expected to last five weeks and include expert witnesses such as current Education Commissioner Pam Stewart.

In lambasting Florida's education system, the plaintiff's lead attorney Neil Chonin decried Florida's controversial and high-stakes "accountability" framework, which includes using the results of students' standardized exams to, in part, determine student retention, teacher evaluations and school grades.

Continue reading "Trial challenging Florida's education system gets underway in Tallahassee" »

Might Florida 'Best and Brightest' bonus renewal face legal challenge?

Via @JeffSolochek and The Gradebook:

Despite strong opposition by some Florida senators, the state Legislature approved a second year of the controversial Best and Brightest bonus that rewards teachers, in part, for their ACT or SAT scores of long ago.

Some key naysayers, including outgoing Sen. John Legg, criticized the action. Legg challenged the placement of Best and Brightest in the budget implementing bill, arguing the courts have said substantive policy that hadn't been approved otherwise did not belong in the appropriations act.

"I believe this Legislature has not has an opportunity to weigh in," Legg told his colleagues. "The process is circumvented by putting it in the implementing bill."

Appropriations chairman Sen. Tom Lee contended that there wasn't a problem, because the $49 million for the program appeared in the actual budget, and the implementing language simply commemorated the money. Calling it a symbolic victory for House supporters, Lee noted that the language would disappear if Gov. Rick Scott vetoes the expense.

The bonus has a "one year life span," he said. "We will have to come back and get our head around the continuation of Best and Brightest."

That debate, though, has led to a broader conversation about whether lawmakers went too far in legislating through the budget. Several organizations are talking about how to proceed if the governor leaves Best and Brightest in the budget, said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who often represents the Florida Education Association and the school boards association.

"Sen. Legg's debate brought out ... that this is another classic example of logrolling," Meyer said.

Such moves have been found inconsistent with the Florida Constitution, he said. The constitution states that all laws "shall embrace but one subject and matter properly connected therewith, and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title."

In Brown vs. Firestone (1980) the state Supreme Court wrote, "Were we to sanction a rule permitting an appropriations bill to change existing law, the legislature would in many instances be able to logroll, and in every instance the integrity of the legislative process would be compromised."

The question becomes whether what happened with Best and Brightest fits the definitions that Legg put forth, or those suggested by Lee. Getting an answer would depend on a lawsuit being filed, and so far it's all just talk.

Legg said he would suspect a suit if Scott does not veto the provision. Meyer said the taxpayer who might consider filing would have to balance the principle at stake and the value of everything else in the bill, which also would be challenged.

March 12, 2016

Florida lawmakers OK principal autonomy program for 7 school districts

@ByKristenMClark

Select principals in seven Florida school districts -- including Broward, Palm Beach and Pinellas -- could soon have more power to oversee operations at low-performing public schools.

In one of its final votes on the last day of the 2016 session, the Legislature gave final, bipartisan approval to HB 287, which creates the three-year "Principal Autonomy Pilot Program Initiative."

The program aims to give principals at some failing schools more say over staff assignments and program funding.

Republicans Sen. Rene Garcia, of Hialeah, and Reps. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, and Chris Sprowls, of Palm Harbor, sponsored the legislation with the goal of trying a new way to improve student performance and school operations at failing schools.

The other four school districts eligible to participate are Duval, Jefferson, Madison and Seminole counties. 

Districts have to seek approval from the state board to engage in the program -- by identifying three schools that received grades of "D" or "F" in two of the past three years and offering a plan of how "highly effective" principals assigned to those schools could better allocate resources.

Senators passed the bill by a 36-4 vote on Friday, about an hour before ending the 2016 session. Those opposed were Democratic Sens. Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Dwight Bullard of Cutler Bay, Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood and Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, the Senate Democratic leader.

The House passed it in mid-February by a 97-17 vote. Those opposed in the House were also some of the chamber's Democrats.

The bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.

The annual budget lawmakers also approved late Friday includes $910,000 to fund the pilot program. Of that, $700,000 is a one-time allocation.