March 03, 2016

Don Gaetz backs off attempt to revive open-carry proposal


Sen. Don Gaetz today backed down from plans to make a last-ditch effort in getting his open-carry proposal heard this session.

The Niceville Republican had wanted to amend his plan on to a different concealed weapons bill that senators heard on the chamber floor today.

But the attempt was short-lived.

Ever since Gaetz filed the proposed amendment last night, some senators had been coordinating to thwart Gaetz by citing Senate rules.

Heading into the Senate session this morning, Gaetz acknowledged the opposition but said "we'll give it a try."

But when SB 612 came up early this afternoon, Gaetz said he'd been advised by Rules Chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that his amendment was "out of order," because it was the subject of his standalone bill that stalled in committee.

Gaetz said "in deference to Senate rules" he would withdraw the open-carry amendment.

Gaetz's bill -- which would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida -- cleared the its first committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up.

Diaz de la Portilla's decision to not even consider open-carry sparked anger from Gaetz two weeks ago -- which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, with whom Gaetz has had a long-standing feud.

The Republican-heavy House passed its version of the open-carry bill in February, by a 80-38 vote.

March 02, 2016

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate


A controversial bonus plan that awards "highly effective" teachers based on their ACT/SAT scores faces a tough fight in the Florida Senate -- and that battle is bogging down a massive education bill that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to use as a vehicle to permanently extend the "Best & Brightest" bonuses.

Rank-and-file senators in both parties are, at least, reluctant or, at most, altogether opposed to the program. Echoing other critics, they argue it's not a fair way to reward teachers, since there's no proven correlation between teachers' high school test scores and their ability to be good teachers.

But Senate Republican leaders say they want to make a "good faith effort" to support "Best & Brightest" because it's a priority for House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, a Land O'Lakes Republican who's in line to become House Speaker in November.

"The process works best when we respect each chamber's priorities, as much as we respect our own," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said this evening.

Gaetz's education bill (SB 524) that includes "Best & Brightest" -- among a dozen other policy proposals -- was scheduled to be heard on the Senate floor today, but dozens of amendments were added to it as late as this morning. Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, asked for his bill to be postponed so senators could digest the myriad proposed changes.

The bill could come back up again as early as Thursday as part of the Senate's "Special Order" calendar.

Among the proposed amendments to SB 524 are efforts by several senators to either strip the "Best & Brightest" bonuses entirely from the bill or, if that fails, significantly change the eligibility criteria, so that teachers could be awarded based on different benchmarks.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses face battle in Florida Senate" »

Sen. Don Gaetz wants to revive stalled open-carry proposal through floor amendment


There's a reason lawmakers are hesitant to declare bills dead until the end of session, because there's a lot of procedural maneuvering that can be done to keep stalled bills alive, or at least out of the grave.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz is employing one such tactic to breathe life into his controversial proposal that would let 1.5 million concealed-weapons permit-holders openly carry handguns in Florida.

Gaetz this evening filed an amendment to a different concealed weapons bill, in the hopes of adding his open-carry measure to it.

Gaetz's bill cleared the Senate Criminal Justice Committee last fall but then stalled before the Senate Judiciary Committee when Chairman Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, refused to take it up. (Two weeks ago, Diaz de la Portilla's decision sparked anger from Gaetz, which led to a passionate retort from Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.)

The bill Gaetz wants to add open-carry to is narrowly titled "an act relating to slungshots." Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, is seeking to remove slungshots from the state's concealed weapons statute.

Hays' bill (SB 612) -- and Gaetz's proposed amendment -- is on the calendar for senators to consider Thursday.

Senators try, fail to require unanimous jury decision on death-penalty cases; House compromise intact


Some senators this morning unsuccessfully tried to undo a political compromise with the Florida House that's intended to fix the state's death penalty sentencing procedures, in light of a U.S. Supreme Court decision related to Florida's law.

Under the agreement, at least 10 of 12 jurors would have to agree to impose a death sentence, as opposed to having only a simple majority under today's law.

But several senators, led by Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, urged the chamber to force the House's hand and stick to requiring a unanimous jury decision -- a policy the Senate Criminal Justice committee endorsed by a 5-0 vote earlier this session.

Clemens argued that the Senate shouldn't allow "one or two members" to negotiate with the House and bypass the committee process, where policies are supposed to be vetted.

"We don’t have to yield to the House in any way shape or form," agreed Sen. Thad Altman, R-Rockledge. "If we don’t pass a bill, the death penalty goes away and I don’t think the House is going to let that happen, so why not send them the best product possible?"

Baker Republican Sen. Greg Evers -- who advocated for the compromise -- said: "The problem is there's two bodies in the Legislature."

"We knew that we had to do something. There had to be common ground," Evers said.

After lengthy debate, Clemens' amendment narrowly failed, first by an 18-22 vote. The vote was reconsidered a few minutes later, after Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said "some wrong buttons were inadvertently pushed.”

The amendment failed a second time by a 17-23 vote, with three Republican senators changing their votes.

Sen. Rene Garcia, of Miami, changed from "no" to "yes." Sens. Tom Lee,of Brandon, and David Simmons, of Altamonte Springs, changed from "yes" to "no."

The Senate will take up the House's bill on Thursday for a final vote.

Florida, in practice, doesn't currently have the death penalty because lawmakers have yet to fix the state's legal procedure for sentencing in those cases, which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional.

In its narrow decision, the court ruled that juries, not judges, should be the ones to impose the death penalty. But lawmakers fear that by not requiring a super-majority or even a unanimous jury decision, the state leaves itself vulnerable to constitutional challenges.

Florida is the only state using capital punishment in which as few as seven of 12 jurors can recommend death.

March 01, 2016

Miami-Dade superintendent: Coding and foreign language are not interchangeable

Carvalho head to waist shot@ByKristenMClark & @MaryEllenKlas

The top administrator of Florida's largest school district -- and the fourth largest school district in the country -- remains opposed to a legislative proposal that would let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language.

Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said again Tuesday that lawmakers should not equate the two, and he said he fears for the implications the policy decision could have on students' future opportunities -- such as their ability to apply for scholarships, college or even competitive jobs in a global workforce.

"We all value the importance of computer science and coding. We all value the importance of foreign language. We just don't believe they're interchangeable," Carvalho told the Herald/Times, while he was back in Tallahassee today to testify on a different bill.

The computer coding proposal easily passed the Florida Senate last week. A similar measure awaits consideration on the House floor.

Margate Democratic Sen. Jeremy Ring, a former Yahoo executive, has spearhead the legislation. He argues that technology is a "basic skill" students need to have and that allowing computer coding as a foreign language would better prepare students for high-demand careers.

On the Senate floor, Ring said he believed a person who knows computer coding is "bilingual."

But the proposal has many opponents, ranging from civil rights organizations to some school and district administrators, like Carvalho.

"If you're going to consider computer science as a language -- a foreign language, not just a language -- why not consider music? You can write it, you can read it, it's been around for millenia, right?" Carvalho quipped. "They're different forms of communication and expression, but they're not interchangeable."

Continue reading "Miami-Dade superintendent: Coding and foreign language are not interchangeable" »

February 29, 2016

NAACP, other groups blast computer-coding proposal as 'misleading and mischievous'


Organizations that represent black and Hispanic Floridians released a joint statement Monday declaring their opposition to legislation that would let high school students count computer coding as a foreign language class.

The measure passed the Senate, 35-5, last week, and its companion bill awaits consideration on the House floor.

The groups who joined in Monday's statement were the NAACP's Florida Conference and Miami-Dade branch, the Florida chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Spanish American League Against Discrimination (SALAD).

"Our children need skills in both technology and in foreign languages to compete in today's global economy," the joint statement reads. "However, to define coding and computer science as a foreign language is a misleading and mischievous misnomer that deceives our students, jeopardizes their eligibility to admission to universities, and will result in many losing out on the foreign language skills they desperately need even for entry-level jobs in South Florida.

"We stand with Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, educators, parents, the (Florida Education Association) and (United Teachers of Dade), and other advocacy organizations in asking our legislators to vote NO on HB 887."

Read the full statement here.

The legislation is sponsored by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate. Ring is a former Yahoo executive, who has spearheaded the measure as a means to better prepare today's students for in-demand careers in the technology sector.

On the Senate floor last week, Ring said he believed a person who knows computer coding is "bilingual."

'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language


As legislation to make permanent the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonus program remains in limbo this session, Florida House and Senate leaders are floating the possibility of a one-year extension by including the program -- once again -- in proviso language for the annual budget.

The controversial program predictably surfaced as a point of leverage between House and Senate education leaders this weekend as they started hashing out the 2016-17 budget.

The bonuses are a priority for House Republicans, but senators in both parties are especially reluctant to buy in to the idea.

By Sunday evening, lead education budget negotiators Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Don Gaetz had agreed on the largest budget issue: how to fund increases to K-12 schools and by how much.

But the rest of the education budget remains unresolved.

The House rejected the first and only offer from the Senate, which included -- among a host of issues -- a proposed compromise on funding for the "Best and Brightest" program. The bonuses award "highly effective" teachers who scored in the top 20 percent on their high school SAT/ACT exams.

The offer from Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, was a broad this-for-that exchange of several priority areas, which was presented as "all or nothing" to the House.

Under Gaetz's offer, the Senate would have supported the House's desire to include the teacher bonus plan in the budget implementing bill -- allowing it to continue for a second year. The Senate would have also supported $22.5 million in funding, half the amount the House wants.

Continue reading "'Best & Brightest' teacher bonuses might be continued through budget language" »

February 27, 2016

House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars

Gaetz and fresen


Legislative leaders were close to hashing out a deal Saturday evening to provide record-level K-12 education funding next school year -- without forcing businesses and homeowners to shoulder hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funding through local property taxes.

The proposal is a gesture of significant compromise by the Florida House.

But by using a greater share of state dollars instead, the $458 million proposed increase for 2016-17 is far less than what Republican Gov. Rick Scott or House or Senate leaders had originally sought.

Scott's recommendation to the Legislature was for a $507 million increase, almost 90 percent of which would have come from property taxes that homeowners and businesses pay.

By comparison, the House had originally proposed a $601 million increase, while the Senate wanted $650 million extra.

Both initial legislative budget plans mirrored Scott's funding formula, but Senate leaders have, for weeks, argued that increasing K-12 funding through the "required local effort" -- as Scott proposed -- would constitute a "tax increase."

Scott and some House members disagreed with that assertion, arguing that the tax rate wouldn't have changed. Even so, property tax bills would've gone up because property values have rebounded statewide.

On Saturday, House members -- led by education budget conference committee Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen -- shifted their tone.

"There was obviously a lot of concern by members of both parties as to how those funds were distributed," the Miami Republican said.

After re-analyzing their budget allocations, Fresen said he and committee Vice-Chairman Sen. Don Gaetz "made the policy decision overall to apply more general revenue ... (and) apply less of what could be considered -- whether construed properly or not -- as a property tax increase."

Continue reading "House, Senate close to deal on K-12 funding that avoids hike on local tax dollars" »

February 26, 2016

What's included in those Florida Senate education 'train' bills?

Via @JeffSolochek and the Gradebook:

By now you've heard that the Florida Senate Appropriations Committee this week strung together a variety of education proposals that were struggling to get to the finish line, and put them into two previously tiny and barely related bills that had to be renamed to encompass their new, broader scope.

Some of the issues have received a great deal of attention in the new SB 524 (state university system performance based funding), and the revamped SB 1166 (education funding).

The Best and Brightest teacher bonus, for one, dropped into SB 524 after facing must criticism in other forms when heard in other Senate committees. Even after landing in the new bill, that measure has an uncertain fate, with some key Republican senators still questioning the program's value.

A bill to mandate elementary school recess, already adopted by the House, came and went as an amendment without a vote but also could resurface on the floor.

What else got looped into these two pieces of legislation, which still must win approval in the full Senate and agreement in the House? Here's a rundown.

Continue reading "What's included in those Florida Senate education 'train' bills?" »

2 wide-ranging education bills clear Florida Senate Appropriations


Nearly 30 education-related topics — including some of the most high-profile and contentious policies discussed this year — have been folded into two bills that the Florida Senate’s budget committee approved Thursday.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz proposed sweeping rewrites of two of his bills in order to give House and Senate priorities a better chance at passage as the Legislature nears the final two weeks of session.

Both of the bills (SB 524 and SB 1166) were originally only three pages long and dealt narrowly with public universities’ performance funding and education funding, respectively.

The 59-page rewrite to SB 524 includes such controversial issues as the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus plan, the Senate’s proposed reforms for capital funding to charter schools and school districts, and at least a dozen more topics.

Similarly, the new, 85-page version of SB 1166 now includes: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures and high school athletics proposals, among other topics.

The individual policy proposals are working their way through the Senate in various forms, with a few — like the teacher bonuses — facing difficulty passing on their own.

More here.