March 12, 2016

Florida lawmakers OK principal autonomy program for 7 school districts


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.

These major education proposals failed to pass the Florida Legislature this year


Despite getting various levels of momentum this session, many high-profile education proposals -- such as allowing computer coding to count as a foreign language -- failed to cross the finish line during the 2016 session.

Here's a round-up of some major education-related proposals that failed to pass the Florida Legislature this year:

-- Computer coding (HB 887/SB 468): The measure -- spearheaded by former Yahoo executive and Broward County Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate -- cleared the Senate and was poised to be taken up in the House, but that final vote never came. The proposal faced opposition from civil rights groups and Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, who didn't agree that computer coding should be an alternative to traditional foreign languages.

-- "Best & Brightest" teacher bonuses (HB 7043/SB 978): Attempts to permanently enact the policy -- which awards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores -- in state law faltered because of opposition in the Senate. However, the bonuses will still be funded with $49 million for another school year, as a compromise to the House. Education budget Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Friday that returning lawmakers next year can further vet the policy and, with two years of data then, they can compare year-to-year gains in student and teacher performance.

-- Alternative testing (SB 1360): Gaetz's plan to allow school districts and parents to choose alternative standardized tests for their students in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments was ambitious from the start. Gaetz never had a House companion to his bill, which is a necessity for proposals to have a chance at becoming law. The bill was scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on this week, but Gaetz pulled it -- acknowledging its defeat. He said, though, that he hoped it sent a symbolic message that this issue was important for the Senate and that lawmakers should explore it again next year.

-- Charter school authorizer (HJR 759/SJR 976): Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, sought to put on 2016 statewide ballot a constitutional amendment that would create a statewide body to authorize, operate, control and supervise all charter schools. School district officials feared it would take away local-decision making from county school boards, and the League of Women Voters also vocally opposed the concept. The measure stalled in Senate committees; it passed all House committees but wasn't taken up on the floor.

-- City school districts (HJR 539/SJR 734): This proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers -- to allow cities to break away from county school districts and establish their own -- stalled in committee. The House held a workshop discussion on it, but it was never even considered in the Senate.

-- School recess (HB 833/SB 1002): Passionate, self-proclaimed "recess moms" pleaded with lawmakers to pass this proposal this session. It would have required elementary schools to offer 20 minutes of recess each school day. They had near-unanimous support in the House but were stonewalled in the Senate, when Education Pre-K-12 Chairman Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, refused to consider the proposal in committee. The Senate sponsor, Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays, attempted a last-ditch effort to get it tacked on to another bill, but he was blocked by a procedural vote on the Senate floor.

-- Elected education commissioner (HB 767/SB 942): Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, and Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, proposed changing the Florida Constitution to make the statewide education policymaker an elected position again. Garcia's bill got unanimous approval in one Senate committee, but Mayfield's bill wasn't taken up. House K-12 Subcommittee Chairwoman Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said she felt the proposal was one that the upcoming Constitutional Revision Commission should explore.

-- Reading instruction (HB 7021): Adkins' spearheaded this measure through the House to improve instruction and early-intervention strategies for elementary school students who struggle to read, such as those who have dyslexia. It passed the House and had some consideration in the Senate. The House tried to add it to a massive education bill with two days left in session, but it ultimately wasn't included.

*This post has been corrected. The principal autonomy bill (HB 287) did pass late on Friday afternoon before session ended.


March 11, 2016

Lawmakers pass massive 'school choice' bill after late negotiations over charter schools


Florida lawmakers struck a compromise Friday to pass a sweeping "school choice" education package that includes significant changes to how the state's 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.

As part of a last-minute deal, the House rejected efforts by the Senate to crack down on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

The Senate gave up on its plan to ban "private enrichment" in trade for the House accepting a revised formula that weights capital funding in favor of charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities -- which was, in part, what charter schools were intended for when they were established in the 1990s.

But Democrats in both chambers blasted House Republicans for not agreeing to a "legitimate" solution to safeguard public money given to charter schools and to ensure the schools aren't used as a means to line business-owners' pockets.

"This is very bad and the lack of accountability is really amazing," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. "There are some good charter schools -- they’re engaging in innovation -- but many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except plundering the public treasury."

An Associated Press analysis a few months ago found that, since 2000, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding given to charter schools that later closed.

How charter schools are eligible for state capital funding was a sticking point of House Bill 7029, which House and Senate leaders negotiated well into early Friday afternoon -- the last scheduled day of the 2016 legislative session.

The bill has been revised multiple times within the past couple weeks, with re-writes ballooning the bill to, at one point Thursday, 168 pages.

The Senate passed the final version by a 29-10 vote. The House then passed it by a 82-33 vote. Both votes were mostly along party lines.

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

The package also includes measures limiting school districts' spending on capital projects, allowing open enrollment for all K-12 public school students, granting immediate eligibility for high school athletes who transfer schools, and codifying public college and university performance funding in state law, among a dozen other policy proposals.

Continue reading "Lawmakers pass massive 'school choice' bill after late negotiations over charter schools" »

Capitol Buzz: Things to watch today in Tallahassee


Let's face it. There's only one thing everyone's really watching for today -- that fun tradition that officially marks the end of the annual legislative session. But first, there is more work for lawmakers to finish.

* At (or after) 2:53 p.m., the House and Senate can vote on the 2016-17 proposed budget. Passing it completes the one obligation lawmakers are constitutionally required to accomplish.

* The Senate could take up the House's counter-offer on a major education bill, but with the clock running out, it's unclear how viable this legislation still is after the House made significant changes to it Thursday evening.

 * When all the work is done, lawmakers will gather in the Capitol rotunda for the hankie drop. Republican Gov. Rick Scott plans to attend.

* Once Sine Die comes, Dr. John Armstrong -- Florida's surgeon general and top health official -- will be unemployed. The Senate declined to confirm his appointment, so Scott will have to name a replacement.

March 10, 2016

Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill



Calling it "too much of a nuclear issue," the Florida House on Thursday voted to remove the Senate's proposed reforms for charter school capital funding from a massive education bill that lawmakers are trying to negotiate with a day left in the 2016 session.

Mostly along party-lines, the House approved a 168-page, almost-complete re-write of HB 7029, after the Senate sent over its approved version on Wednesday.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen -- who sponsored the re-write -- said the Senate's plans for changing charter school capital funding lacked a reliable, non-political formula, which the House couldn't accept.

Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, had dueling proposals this session to, in some cases, drastically change charter schools' eligibility for state tax dollars they can use for maintenance and construction projects.

Gaetz's plan, in particular, would have made it more difficult for many charter schools to get capital funding, particularly those run by companies looking to make a profit. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. 

Citing a disagreement with the Senate, Fresen said multiple times on the House floor that he'd removed all capital funding provisions related to charter schools from his re-write of HB 7029.

But that's not entirely so.

While Gaetz's proposal was scrapped, a line of Fresen's own plan was slipped into the latest iteration of the bill.

That change of a single digit could have a significant impact on several charter schools by allowing them to be eligible for capital dollars a full year faster:


Continue reading "Discord over charter school capital funding yields House counter-offer on education bill" »

Florida Legislature approves competency-based education pilot program


Florida lawmakers have approved a new pilot program to test competency-based education at public schools in four Florida counties.

HB 1365 sets up the five-year program starting next school year in Pinellas, Palm Beach, Lake and Seminole counties, as well as at the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School in Gainesville.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott still needs to sign it into law.

The program seeks to let students advance through school if they can prove they've mastered what they should be learning.

St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, one of the bill's sponsors, heralds it as "the future of education."

"I’m excited that Florida is taking the first step down that road of competency-based learning," he said.

However, critics fear that the program will "data-mine" students by collecting information on them, while also perpetuating a culture of standardized testing.

"This particular program puts us back into a space that we’re relying on a computer-based test," Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said. "It sounds great but you have a situation where you have those who can make it and those who cannot because of their inability to function on a computer."

Umatilla Republican Sen. Alan Hays -- who has been outspoken about the state education system's reliance on testing -- also opposed it.

"Many times we’re led into a trap by cute phrases that describe programs that have some underlying issues, and this is no exception to that," Hays said. "You need to watch very carefully the kind of data mining that's done, (and) how much information are they getting on that individual student. Sometimes it's nobody else’s business and certainly not the business of the public."

Several other Democrats said they support the program, because they want to see first whether it works.

"We don’t want unintended consequences, we don’t want children’s privacy invaded, we just want it done right," Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, said.

The bill passed the Senate on Thursday, 31-6. Those who opposed it were Hays, Bullard and Republican Sens. Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, Rob Bradley of Fleming Island, Charlie Dean of Inverness and Travis Hutson, of Elkton.

It also passed the House last month, 100-13, with some opposition from Democrats.

The Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida's Future -- which lobbied for the program -- praised the Legislature for approving HB 1365.

"Rather than tailoring education to meet both the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, we force them to conform to a system in which they all are expected to master the same subjects in the same way and in the same amount of time," foundation executive director Patricia Levesque said in a statement. "Competency-based learning addresses this flaw by allowing students to progress at a personalized pace. ... This customized approach reduces boredom, frustration and failure.”

Capitol Buzz: Five things to watch today in Tallahassee


With less than two days left in the 2016 session, lawmakers are furiously trying to pass policy bills through both chambers before the clock runs out. The Senate again starts daily work at 10 a.m., while the House convenes at noon.

Here's what we're watching today:

* The House and Senate will take questions on their 2016-17 budget proposal, in advance of Friday's expected vote.

* The Senate will take up two environmental bills. SB 1168 implements Amendment 1 (the land and water conservation amendment approved by voters in 2014) and establishes a dedicated funding source for Everglades restoration. The chamber will also take up SB 1290, giving state regulators more flexibility over state lands.

* Gov. Rick Scott must act on more than two dozen bills by today, including allowing disabled vets with identifying license plates to park for free at airports, and removing the term "absentee ballot" from the statutes and replacing it with the term "vote by mail ballot."

* The House could take up a massive education bill that the Senate passed Wednesday.

* The Senate is slated to consider a proposal to allow other standardized exams for K-12 public school students, like the SAT or Advanced Placement courses, as an alternative to the Florida Standards Assessments.

March 09, 2016

Law that helps Miami-Dade schools by fixing tax collection shortfalls heads to Gov. Scott

@ByKristenMClark and @cveiga

A proposed law that cleared the Florida Legislature on Wednesday should give local government entities -- such as Miami-Dade Public Schools -- faster access to their tax revenue and the ability to more accurately plan their annual budgets.

Officials with the Miami-Dade school district have, for years, complained that lengthy delays in tax collection short-change public schools by millions of dollars in funding.

And they finally have a solution that's a step away from becoming law.

HB 499 unanimously passed both the House and Senate on Wednesday and now awaits Republican Gov. Rick Scott's signature.

The measure -- led by Republicans Sen. Anitere Flores, of Miami, and Rep. Bryan Avila, of Hialeah -- reforms statewide the process for resolving property tax disputes, which are heard by county Value Adjustment Boards.

It puts limits on when property owners' appeals need to be resolved, and it requires the boards to complete all appeals and certify property values with the county appraiser no later than June 1.

Flores said the provisions "speed up and modernize that process, so hopefully entities such as our school system and our public school students will receive the money they deserve in a timely matter."

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and other district officials traveled to Tallahassee at least twice this session to testify in favor of the bill when it was vetted by legislative committees.

"We're finally going to have legislative protection that will ensure equity in funding for Miami-Dade's children," Carvalho said Wednesday in Miami.

Carvalho and school board chairwoman Perla Tabares Hantman both said they were "appreciative" of Avila, Flores and the rest of the Miami-Dade delegation for navigating the bill through the legislative process. 

"This was a very big priority for the board," Hantman said. 

The district's fight over property tax appeals has been years-long and contentious.

The district audited the local value adjustment board, refused to pay a $1.5 million bill to the property appraiser and threatened to sue over the issue. United Teachers of Dade, the local union, did sue -- but a judge dismissed the complaint.

Carvalho said the district will now pay close attention to how the bill is implemented in Miami-Dade.

"Everything is in place to solve the problem. With every law that's passed in Tallahassee, it is about the execution. And fidelity as far as execution will be key," Carvalho said.

FEA blasts Florida Senate for agreeing to 'Best & Brightest' extension, urges Scott to veto


The state's largest teachers union has some harsh words for the Florida Senate, after Republican leaders agreed this week to compromise with the House and continue funding a controversial teacher bonus program for another year.

"The public should be outraged and Senate leaders should be ashamed," Florida Education Association President Joanne McCall said in a statement today. "This flies in the face of democratic principles."

The final state budget proposal that lawmakers will vote on on Friday includes $49 million in 2016-17 to reward “highly effective” teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in what's known as the "Best & Brightest" program.

The full Senate has never voted on the policy, although several members wanted that opportunity this session. It's the second year in a row that the bonuses have been authorized solely through budget language.

The Florida Education Association, which represents more than 140,000 teachers and education professionals, has long opposed the program. The union is challenging it, arguing it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

About 5,200 teachers of the state’s nearly 172,000 teachers qualified this year.

“The Florida Senate is shoving 'Best and Brightest' down our throats,” McCall said. "The point of bills, committees and votes is so that statewide policy that impacts Floridians is thoroughly vetted and transparently scrutinized."

Many Democrats and some Republicans in the Senate had voiced concerns for the past couple weeks, fearing Republican leaders might agree to keep funding "Best & Brightest" although the Senate hadn't approved the policy.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, called the program "the worst and dumbest," and Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said last week Senate leaders' decision “empowers the Senate leadership over the Senate members and it looks like they’re siding with the House members more than Senate members.”

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, defended the decision, saying the budget process is about negotiation and compromise. He said some of the Senate's priorities were met, so they agreed to support "Best & Brightest" as a priority of the House.

McCall said, "This is not Florida in the sunshine; it is Florida in a smoky back room."

"We hope Gov. Rick Scott will stand up for public education and veto the program when he receives the budget," the FEA said.

Cohabitation could soon be legal again in Florida, as Legislature sends repeal to governor


Florida lawmakers signed off on legislation Wednesday to repeal a 148-year-old law that prohibits unmarried couples from living together.

The Florida House passed the cohabitation repeal bill (SB 498) by a 112-5 vote, sending it to Republican Gov. Rick Scott for his signature. The Senate passed the bill last week unanimously.

Lawmakers have tried in previous years to repeal the law but have been unsuccessful.

Sen. Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, and Democratic Reps. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, of Tallahassee, and Richard Stark, of Weston, led the charge this year.

The Five Republicans who opposed it on the House floor were: Reps. Janet Adkins of Fernandina Beach, Brad Drake of Eucheeanna, Mike Hill of Pensacola Beach, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora and Charles Van Zant of Keystone Heights.

Shortly after the vote, Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, changed his vote to "no" also, but that doesn't count in the official vote tally.