February 17, 2016

Proposed reforms to Florida's 'stand your ground' law revived with House referral


Potential changes to the state's "stand your ground" law were resuscitated in the Florida House this past week, despite the original measure stalling in a subcommittee last fall.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, referred the Senate-approved bill to the House Judiciary Committee, which gives the chamber a second chance at considering the policy this session.

"It's a fair discussion to have," Crisafulli told reporters after Wednesday's session. "If they pass it, they pass it. If they don't, they don't."

Jacksonville Republican Rep. Charles McBurney, the House judiciary chairman, has the prerogative to hear the bill -- SB 344, sponsored by Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island.

McBurney told the Herald/Times Wednesday evening that "no decision has been made" on which bills might be taken up after the committee's hearing Thursday morning.

Bradley's bill is not on that agenda. The committee has at least one more hearing scheduled (for next week), but McBurney said the agenda hasn't been set.

Judiciary is the only committee Bradley's bill was referred to in the House, so if it's heard and passes, the bill would go straight to the House floor for a final vote.

House Democrats are annoyed that the "stand your ground" reforms are back in play, because their success at killing the House bill -- by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala -- was a rare victory for them in the Republican-led Legislature. It was also an unusual defeat for a priority of the National Rifle Association.

"When I learned of it, I went to the chairman of judiciary, and I said, 'Even when I win, I lose,' " said Rep. Dave Kerner, D-Lake Worth, who led the opposition that led to a deadlocked vote on Baxley's bill.

Because it failed to advance out of the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee, the House members on that panel effectively killed Baxley's version.

"It's now back from the Senate. I think there's some procedural pitfalls in doing that," Kerner said. "We have a process and the bill died by a bipartisan vote, and the fact that it's back is very unfortunate and we're working to kill it again."

In order for proposals to become law, identical bills have to pass out of the House and Senate. Traditionally, in the Florida Legislature, separate bills are filed and advanced separately through each chamber.

After Baxley's bill died, Bradley's version continued progressing through legislative committees in the Senate, and senators passed it by a 24-12 vote in late January.

Crisafulli noted that the House judiciary panel was among the committees that Baxley's bill "would have gone to, had it not died over here."

Both bills shift the burden of proof in self-defense cases, requiring prosecutors to prove why a defendant could not claim the state's "stand your ground" law as a defense for their actions. The law, adopted in 2005, allows residents to use deadly force in defense of their lives or property in certain circumstances, with no obligation to retreat or flee.

Republican lawmakers offered bills this session in response to a Florida Supreme Court ruling last summer that stated defendants who claim a stand-your-ground defense have to prove before trial why they’re entitled to that immunity. Bradley contended the justices “misinterpreted legislative intent” of the decade-old law.

Bradley's bill was amended in the Senate, so prosecutors would be subject to a lesser burden of proof than what the original bills proposed.

Prior to the Senate vote, Democrats in that chamber railed against Bradley's bill, arguing it would “stack the deck against justice for the dead,” especially for victims who are minorities.

League: Plan for state charter school authorizer is 'an egregious attack on public schools'


The Florida League of Women Voters and advocates for traditional public schools lambasted Republican state lawmakers today for proposing and considering a constitutional amendment that would set up a state-appointed board with the power to "authorize, operate, control, and supervise" charter schools across Florida.

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. School districts currently have the ability to authorize new charter schools based on criteria set forth in state law.

But some school districts have tried to push back on the proliferation of charter schools in a way that Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, has said violates those rules and injects subjectivity into what is supposed to be a black-and-white approval process. 

He and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, are proposing the change to Florida's Constitution to give charter school applicants an alternate authority from which to get the needed approval. (More here).

They have said it wouldn't reduce local power, but critics -- including the league -- disagree.

"It would be a major change to the Florida Constitution, disregarding school districts' authority," league President Pamela Goodman said, during a league rally on the steps of the Old Capitol in Tallahassee.

"It's another example of the continued push to privatize public schools and establish a parallel system that diverts money to for-profit corporations," Goodman said, calling it an "egregious attack on public schools."

Diaz, a proponent of charter schools, told the Herald/Times in a text message that "it's unfortunate they (the league) spend time and energy trying to limit educational choices for parents and students across the state."

"Charter schools are public schools and they should be one of the many choices students in our state have," he said.

Diaz's version (HJR 759) is ready for consideration on the House floor, while Stargel's measure in the Senate (SJR 976) has stalled in committee.

Her bill was supposed to be heard in late January by the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee, but it was postponed and hasn't been scheduled for consideration again since. The committee has not met for two weeks and it's unclear whether it will have another meeting this session. Committee Chairman John Legg, a Republican senator from Trinity, did not return a message seeking comment.

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.

The league was joined at their rally by Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, but he left the steps prior to the league's discussion of the proposed charter school amendment. (More here on his appearance in Tallahassee.)

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 10, 2016

Gov. Rick Scott solicits support for tech center grant funding



Trying to get Florida lawmakers' support for one of his more lesser-profile priorities, Republican Gov. Rick Scott rallied in the Capitol rotunda this morning to raise awareness for his call to invest $20 million in a grant program that would help students at the state's 48 post-secondary technical centers.

Flanked by students, center administrators and other supporters, Scott said: "This is part of making sure that you get the right things passed during session, that the right things are in the budget."

"You have to be here to make sure your legislators know what's important to you," Scott told the crowd, noting his proposed Technical Center Rapid Response Grant Program is "important to people who want jobs around our state."

Scott included the $20 million for the new program in his proposed budget to lawmakers. Education budget leaders in both the House and Senate have said they are open to discussing it but aren't committing to Scott's specific recommendation.

The House included $10 million toward the program in its budget plan, said Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the House's education budget committee chairman.

Senate education budget Chairman Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, mentioned the full $20 million in funding when he gave his initial budget presentation in late January, noting that "how that will be defined will be the subject of" future committee work in the Senate.

Both the House and Senate will discuss their full budget proposals on the chamber floors today and Thursday.

It's not common practice for Scott to lobby lawmakers directly or hold rallies to drum up support for his priorities. In the past couple months, though, he's appeared before House and Senate committees to argue for his tax-cut package, and last week, he held another Capitol rally to promote his call for $1 billion in tax cuts and $250 million in business incentives.

The "rapid response" grants are one of at least a handful of priorities that lawmakers either have rejected, questioned or are offering counter proposals for during the 2016 session. Among those topics: the proposed tax cuts, the business incentives for Enterprise Florida, the Seminole gaming compact, and his funding plan to increase to K-12 education funding using mostly local property tax revenue. 

In line with his ongoing goal to get Florida students employed, Scott's budget proposal called for the Department of Education to set up the "rapid response" grants to help expand or develop post-secondary programs "in high-demand areas." The state's tech centers served more than 230,000 students in 2014-15.

"I've never met anybody in the state who's interested in going on unemployment. They all want jobs," Scott said. "It's our job to create an environment where they can get the best jobs possible."


House budget panel endorses limits on school construction spending


With resounding opposition from Democrats and school officials, Republican lawmakers in the Florida House are fast-tracking a proposal to significantly change how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects, while making it easier for charter schools to get capital dollars.

Education budget committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out … in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen said.

His substitute version of a bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they’d forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars from the state if they exceed it.

It would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and don’t typically enjoy such local aid. Furthermore, charter schools would be eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria.

The Republican-heavy Appropriations Committee approved the revised version of HB 873 mostly along party lines on Tuesday, with Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, joining Republicans in support. Other Democrats and school officials urged Republicans to take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach.“I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

More here.

February 09, 2016

Open-enrollment bill goes to Florida House floor with amendments

House education committee 0209


A bill that would allow open enrollment in Florida public schools is headed to the House floor, after the House Education Committee on Tuesday afternoon made two significant changes.

HB 669 -- from Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor -- would allow parents to request classroom transfers for their kids or put them in any school in the state that has capacity.

After stalling last year, the measure moved swiftly through three committees since passing its first panel three weeks ago, and it's one of several bills being debated in both the House and Senate this session that call for open enrollment. The concept is supported by "school choice" advocates and the charter school industry -- which gave Florida lawmakers' campaign and political committees at least $182,500 between July and early January, before the 2016 session started.

After more than an hour of debate Tuesday, Sprowls' bill passed the House Education Committee on a 13-5 vote, with Tallahassee Democratic Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda joining Republicans in support.

Republicans said the bill promotes choice and the freedom for all students to go to a quality school that suits their needs. But Democrats said key questions still remain unanswered, such as how it would affect school funding across district lines and whether it would hurt neighborhood schools or have other unintended consequences.

The most controversial change adopted by the committee had critics worrying that developers in wealthy areas would be able to designate which students could attend schools built in blossoming communities. The amendment by Sprowls would give primary enrollment preference based on land donations "or funding agreements" in place with school districts before July 2016.

"We’re cherry-picking and saying only in those wealthy communities, where a developer is going to give the land, are we protecting that right to neighborhood schools," Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura, said.

Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, called it "bad public policy" because the proposal was so broad, and he was among those who said it would enable developers to "buy a seat" in preferred schools.

Supporters on the education committee said such fears were "unfounded" because the bill would only affect existing agreements in place by this summer, not future ones.

"A lot of what is being discussed here is current practice and it can happen today," Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said. "This is simply just memorializing an existing development and mitigation tool that exists."

Sprowls' amendment was added on a voice vote, which sounded close.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also added an unrelated provision that would require middle- and high school teachers to provide a class syllabus to parents and highlight "any material containing mature or adult content" that they intend to teach.

Teachers would have sole discretion to decide what is potentially controversial material, and parents would be given the opportunity to object, under the provision brought forth by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach.

Adkins and Reps. Marlene O'Toole, R-The Villages, and Michael Bileca, R-Miami, spoke vaguely of "pornographic" and "sexually explicit" material that students have been suggested or required to read in some Florida public schools.

"The content that some of our kids are exposed to under the responsibility of the school district … would shock a lot of members on this committee," Bileca said. He told the Herald/Times after the meeting that the questionable material he'd seen was brought to him by concerned Collier County parents.

Adkins' amendment was also added on a voice vote, which sounded unanimous.

Also Tuesday, the Education Committee sent three other high-profile bills to the House floor for consideration. They would:

-- propose to voters a constitutional amendment creating a statewide authorizer that could authorize, operate and control Florida's 650 charter schools;

-- require elementary schools to offer daily recess;

-- and target the Florida School Boards Association and eliminate its ability to sue the state using taxpayer dollars.

Both the charter school authorizer measure and the FSBA bill are moving through Senate committees also. The recess bill hasn't been heard at all in the Senate.

Photo credit: Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, presents HB 669 to the House Education Committee on Feb. 9, 2016. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Computer coding proposal keeps moving through Florida Legislature


Plans to require public high schools to provide computer-coding courses and let students count them toward foreign language credits continue to easily advance through the Florida Legislature.

The Senate version -- led by former Yahoo executive and current state Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- is ready for consideration on the chamber's floor, and the House version passed its second of three committees on Tuesday.

The bill by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, was amended by the House education budget committee to include a $79,000-paid position at the Department of Education to "fund the bill."

Her version includes a provision directing the Higher Education Coordinating Council to develop recommendations for student success in post-secondary education and careers in computer science, information technology and related fields. A staff analysis of the bill recommended appropriating funds for a "program specialist" to support that directive.

Ring's version includes no such appropriation, as his bill is more narrowly tailored.

He's previously said the proposal would impose no costs, despite concerns raised by other lawmakers that it would require schools to hire teachers with specialty expertise, as well as provide enough computers to meet students' demand when many schools are already strapped for technology resources.

The bill's supporters include tech businesses, the Florida PTA, the Miami-Dade County Council of PTA/PTSA and Charter Schools USA.

Florida's public colleges and universities would be required to recognize students' computer-coding credits toward foreign language requirements.

Ring's version was changed last week to take effect in the 2018-19 school year and to include a provision requiring students and parents to sign a statement "acknowledging and accepting that taking a computer coding course as a foreign language may not meet out-of-state college and university foreign language requirements."

Adkins' bill requires districts to provide an advisory to students and parents, but there's no requirement of a signed statement. Her bill also requires Florida Virtual School to offer coding courses and for districts to give students access to the virtual school if local schools can't provide the course.