April 19, 2017

Florida parents want a House vote on recess. Will they get it?

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@ByKristenMClark

All that Florida parents want is guaranteed daily recess for their elementary school children. Just 20 minutes a day to allow for a brain break and some playtime.

But for the second consecutive year, that relatively simple request seems increasingly in jeopardy — despite overwhelming public and legislative support — thanks to obstruction by a few influential lawmakers in the Florida House.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, won’t have a conversation about school recess, and his top lieutenants offer only deflection when asked what the House will do.

Parents want a vote. In the two weeks since the state Senate unanimously passed its bill to require daily recess in public elementary schools, parents have mobilized, calling for SB 78 to be brought to the House floor.

“The PEOPLE have spoken and they want this bill!” Orlando “recess mom” Amy Narvaez wrote in an email to House leadership earlier this month that was obtained through a public records request.

But despite the public outcry, House leaders have shown no inclination to act.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Omari Accius 6, enjoys 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

April 17, 2017

Some school districts, including Miami-Dade, are actively lobbying against 'schools of hope'

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@ByKristenMClark

Administrators at some of Florida’s largest school districts — including Miami-Dade County — are speaking out in opposition to House Republicans’ $200 million “schools of hope” plan that would pit new, specialized charter schools against the districts’ perpetually failing traditional public schools.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is “actively lobbying against” HB 5105, a spokeswoman said, and Duval County schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sent a lengthy letter to the Florida Senate Monday morning urging lawmakers to “please use logic and reject” the House’s bill.

The Senate has yet to formally discuss the “schools of hope” legislation that the Republican-led House passed last week along party-lines. The legislation seeks to attract specialized, out-of-state charter schools to come to Florida and compete with struggling traditional schools so that students currently attending such schools have another option.

Because both chambers agreed to send the House-approved bill to upcoming budget conference negotiations, it all-but ensures some form of the policy will become law in 2017-18. (The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes.)

However, school district administrators — echoing some of the opposition expressed by House Democrats — say they have concerns about the proposal.

In his five-page letter, Vitti said the bill “seemingly attempts to address the authentic need” of improving schools that serve students who largely face the challenge of generational poverty “but does so without a research-based, data-driven, realistic or sustainable solution.”

Full story here.

Photo credit: Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau

Major education policy will be decided in conference negotiations. Will it be transparent?

Richard Corcoran Jose Oliva@ByKristenMClark

Florida lawmakers thisweek set into motion a budget process that will result in several highly consequential policy reforms affecting public education to become law this year in one form or another.

But if years of precedent are any indication, what exactly those final laws might be will now be determined through deal-making and negotiations that will take place largely in private, behind closed doors and out of the public eye.

The policy ideas — each tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding — range from reforming oversight and student financial aid for the state’s public colleges and universities to financially enticing privately run public charter schools to compete with failing K-12 neighborhood schools.

MORE: “House fights over $200 million incentive for charter schools, but bill passes”

Citing the fact that such policies are linked to the annual budget lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass, both chambers of the Legislature made a pivotal choice on Thursday to send these substantive education bills to a conference committee. That panel of House and Senate members will be tasked with hashing out a compromise on both the policy and the funding.

Conference is a common annual process for the budget, but lawmakers in recent years have shied away, in most cases, from using it as a vehicle to pass drastic policy reforms that are otherwise amended, debated and voted on on the House and Senate floors.

By comparison to the day-to-day legislative process, conference committee proceedings typically are not transparent and are more unabashedly a display of a preordained outcome.

Leaders in the Republican-led House and Senate reject that conference committee decisions haven’t been open, but at the same time, they’ve also pledged to make the meetings more transparent and accessible to the public this year.

“We’ll have public comments in the conference committee meetings if people want to talk,” Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Rep. Richard Corcoran, a Land O’Lakes Republican who is now House speaker, talks with Rep. Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, on the House floor during the 2016 session. Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 14, 2017

House Republicans, Democrats divided over $200M 'schools of hope' proposal

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@ByKristenMClark

How best to help 77,000 children at perpetually failing K-12 public schools sharply divided the Florida House on Thursday, as the chamber’s Republican majority pushed through a controversial $200 million spending plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida that would offer an alternative to — and potentially supplant the role of — struggling neighborhood schools.

The “schools of hope” proposal (HB 5105) sparked more than three hours of floor debate, mostly by Democrats — the longest of the 2017 session so far. The final vote was 77-40, with Democrats unanimously opposed over concerns the bill would set up a “segregated,” unfair system that would further disadvantage failing schools.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

“Are we returning to the days of separate but not equal in 2017? Over-funding charter schools and underfunding public schools is the same thing,” said Rep. Patrick Henry, a black Democrat from Daytona Beach. He called the bill “another nail in the coffin of public education.”

Republican supporters of the measure, meanwhile, touted “schools of hope” as a way to help break the cycle of generational poverty in communities that are frequently home to black and Hispanic populations, because they said these specialized charter operators would use innovative techniques that have been proven to work in other states, like New York or Washington, D.C.

Republicans also repeatedly dismissed their Democratic critics as pawns of teachers unions and cast them as implicit supporters of allowing failing schools to remain that way.

Full story here.

 

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 13, 2017

Consider it 'education day' in the Florida House

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@ByKristenMClark

The Florida House will pass out its budget proposal today for 2017-18, but it might as well be "education day" in the chamber, too.

Today is also when the chamber's Republican majority will -- barring any earth-shattering surprise -- pass out its most-desired and drastic reforms for education policy this year. And unlike last year, they're all tied to the budget.

Those include:

-- the $200 million "schools of hope" plan to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida to serve students who currently attend failing traditional schools;

-- the $214 million expansion of the "Best & Brightest" teachers bonuses, which changes the criteria to qualify and extends the bonuses to principals, too;

-- and changing the formula for how local and state capital dollars for school construction and maintenance will be disbursed among traditional and charter schools, giving charter schools a cut of the local dollars they don't currently get.

Democrats took a caucus position to oppose the "schools of hope" bill, and you can expect many will also vote against the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the capital outlay funding changes, too. Republicans hold a 79-41 majority, so they don't need Democratic support to push through their priorities.

The Senate has its own ideas on each of these measures, of course, so the final two weeks of session will be ripe with behind-closed-doors negotiating and backroom dealing.

The Senate is conceptually on board with the "Best & Brightest" expansion and the premise behind "schools of hope," but leaders in that chamber have their own ideas on how those policies could be accomplished.

As well, senators on Wednesday passed their own proposal for changing capital outlay funding -- removing a main component of their bill (SB 376) so that sharing local tax dollars with charters wouldn't actually be required. (It currently is optional anyway.) The bill also includes reforms to restrict charter schools from using capital funding for "personal financial enrichment," something the Senate first sought last year.

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, has previously said a mandate on school districts to share their local dollars couldn't be imposed without also affording districts the ability to collect more tax revenue locally, because districts carry a lot of debt service that has to be paid regardless. But raising the millage cap for districts makes some lawmakers wary, because it could be seen as a tax increase even though the decision to actually raise the tax would be approved locally.

Simmons told the Herald/Times Wednesday that taking out the mandate from the Senate bill resolves that conflict and positions the Senate to negotiate with the House in conference committee. The House proposal (HB 5103), meanwhile, calls for a more complicated formula that requires state and local money to be divided among charter and traditional schools, while accounting off the top for the districts' debt service.

Photo credit: Scott Keeler / Tampa Bay Times

April 12, 2017

Broward Democrat: 'We’re creating a segregated system' with 'schools of hope' (VIDEO)

@ByKristenMClark

Florida Democrats aren’t easing up on their criticism of House Republicans’ “schools of hope” plan to spend $200 million on attracting new charter schools to Florida that would serve students who currently attend perpetually failing traditional schools.

Democrats say the Republican proposal short-changes struggling neighborhood schools, which have tried to improve but are hamstrung by limitations — imposed by the Legislature — that charter schools don’t face.

“We’re creating a segregated system that will not fix the issue but will create deeper issues — pitting charter schools against our traditional public school system,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed public schools.

A few hours before the “schools of hope” legislation would be taken up on the House floor later Wednesday, Jones — joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — convened a press conference to reiterate Democrats’ concerns with HB 5105.

Full story here.

April 10, 2017

Most gun bills have stalled in the Legislature. Many say Anitere Flores is the reason why.

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@ByKristenMClark

When Anitere Flores declared, unprompted, a month ago there were a lot of controversial gun-rights measures she wouldn’t support this year, the Miami Republican state senator truly set the tone for the Legislature’s gun debate in 2017.

With the session half over, only a handful of the two dozen pieces of gun-related legislation proposed this year have been considered at all, and of those, only a couple have a viable path at actually becoming law.

The House approved three such bills this week — two of which could likely be enacted this year, including highly divisive changes to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law — but lawmakers in both chambers and from both parties predict those measures will be the only ones on the table for this session.

Several attribute Flores — who is No. 2 in the Senate behind President Joe Negron, R-Stuart — as the reason.

“I think the members — not just myself, but some others — we’re a little gun-bill fatigued,” Flores told the Herald/Times in late March.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami. Steve Cannon / AP

April 06, 2017

House approves "Stand Your Ground" shift, but it's different than the Senate

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@ByKristenMClark

Criminal defendants in Florida who are charged with a wide array of violent acts — including murder, assault and domestic violence — could soon have an easier go at claiming they were justified to act in self-defense, legally stood their ground and don’t deserve to be prosecuted.

After failing to pass a single committee in the House last session, a controversial NRA-backed proposal that would shift the burden of proof to prosecutors during pretrial hearings for “Stand Your Ground” cases is on the verge of becoming law this spring.

Despite vehement objections from state attorneys, gun-control advocates and the entire Democratic caucus, the Republican-led Florida House on Wednesday passed SB 128 — on a 74-39 party-line vote — after representatives made changes from the version the Senate approved last month.

Floor debate lasted for nearly 90 minutes, as several Democrats spoke at length to warn of increased violence and other “irreversible and even deadly” consequences they say the legislation will cause.

“Flipping the burden of proof will do nothing more than increase the carnage that has been inflicted on our communities,” Fort Lauderdale Democratic Rep. Bobby DuBose said.

Full story here.

Photo credit: More than a dozen volunteers with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America watch state House members debate proposed changes to Florida’s “stand your ground” law on April 5, 2017. The gun-control advocacy group opposes the legislation, SB 128. Kristen M. Clark / Herald/Times

April 05, 2017

Miami lawmaker: 'Schools of hope' plan is 'separate but unequal'

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@ByKristenMClark

Miami Democratic state Rep. Kionne McGhee isn’t sugar-coating how much he dislikes House Republicans’ $200 million, “schools of hope” plan to attract high-performing charter schools to Florida that would aid students currently attending perpetually failing traditional public schools.

“This bill, in my humble opinion, creates a separate but unequal system” that “runs afoul” of the state and U.S. Constitutions, McGhee said Wednesday, when HB 5105 faced its second of only two committee hearings. McGhee will be the House Democratic leader starting in late 2018.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and other Republicans noted that a question of constitutionality in Florida’s public education system already arises if the state continues to let students languish in perpetually failing schools for years and years.

“These schools have failed these kids long enough,” Diaz said. “These are kids trapped in generational poverty, and for us to create this illusion it [schools of hope] is a separate system? It’s not.”

The full Appropriations Committee sent the “schools of hope” bill to the House floor on a party-line vote, with Democrats opposed.

They argue the money could be better spent on bringing innovations to traditional public schools, rather than picking “winners and losers” and propping up a specific few nonprofit charter operators, whose “schools of hope” could essentially replace failing neighborhood schools.

The “schools of hope” bill is lawmakers’ “best effort to give hope to kids who have no hope,” Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater said. He told the committee members: “If you’re content with failure, then by all means vote against this bill.”

There are 115 schools in 27 counties across Florida — almost half of which are in South Florida and Tampa Bay alone — that have been graded “D” or “F” for three years or more. The 77,000 students in those schools are the ones House Republicans aim to help by bringing in these proposed “schools of hope.”

A Senate companion to HB 5105 doesn’t yet exist but is poised to surface through a sweeping amendment that would replace a relatively generic charter school bill from Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, with the “schools of hope” legislation. SB 796 — and Bean’s strike-all amendment — were supposed to be considered this week but the Senate Education Committee ran out of time. It could now be taken up as early as April 17.

Photo credit: Jeremy Wallace / Herald/Times

April 04, 2017

Daily school recess mandate passes Senate. The House remains this year's challenge.

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@ByKristenMClark

Nearly 1.3 million elementary school students in Florida are a major step closer to being guaranteed 20 minutes of recess every school day after the state Senate unanimously endorsed the concept Tuesday.

The easy win for SB 78 — sponsored by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — comes one year after chamber leaders wouldn’t even consider the idea.

“This bill is here as a result of moms from across the state having to listen to their children come home — their 7-year-old son come home — and say, ‘Mom, I’m so tired. I hate going to school; I hate going to school because there’s nothing for me to look forward to.’ ” Flores said. “This was a real grassroots effort of moms from across the state, saying: ‘Can you please help? Can you please be the voice in Tallahassee that I can’t be?’ ”

Requiring daily recess in elementary schools is overwhelmingly favored by parents who have lobbied aggressively for the change in Florida law. It’s also supported by a majority of state lawmakers.

But it still faces a potential repeat of 2016 — when the proposal stalled over a single lawmaker’s opposition.

Full story here.

Photo credit: Loana Paine 6, plays on the slide during 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