March 14, 2019

House voucher expansion bill passes its first committee after emotional debate

Miami Herald file photo
A House bill that would create a new publicly funded private school voucher passed its first committee on Thursday, with only two of the committee’s Democrats against it.
“This bill right here is the reason why I ran for the Legislature,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who’s a prominent school choice advocate. “It’s about favoring the parents who have one goal in mind: the best education of their children ... It’s a crime we have not done this sooner.”
The House bill, like its Senate companion, proposes to create a new voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is designed to eliminate the waiting list of about 14,000 low-income students for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship. Both chambers propose to fund the voucher through general revenue dollars typically set aside for school districts.
However, the House version represents a much more aggressive approach. Rather than offer 14,000 vouchers — like the Senate does — to match the number of students on the wait list, the House proposes to fund double, at 28,000 vouchers for the next school year.
The House also would allow families from a much broader income bracket to be eligible. The House bill would allow families making up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $77,250 for a family of four, to apply for the voucher, according to the bill analysis. That income threshold would steadily rise over time, allowing families that make up to $96,572 to participate in the 2022-2023 school year.
The Senate proposed a cutoff around $67,000 for next school year and does not raise its threshold over time.
One teacher, Aimee Smith of Hardy County, cried during her testimony before the committee, saying this program would further cause underfunded public schools to lose out on even more money during a mounting teacher shortage.
“Sometimes it feels, as public school teachers, the state has tied an anchor to our ankles and parents get mad when we cant swim as fast as the private schools,” she said. “I implore you to focus on funding our public education system and not vouchers.”
Despite the passionate opposition, several parents as well as a representative of the Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity advocated for going even further, and eventually offering vouchers to all of Florida’s students regardless of their income. Some lawmakers agreed.
“If I have any criticism of this bill at all it’s that we’re not doing this for everybody," said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, after praising the measure.
Despite several Democrats on the committee voicing concerns with the high income levels allowed to participate in the new voucher, only two Democrats of the four who were present voted against the bill.
“The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program was initially sold as an attempt to help the children of low-income parents get out of failing schools,” said Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando. “Now we’re raising the income limit ... At what point in time do we stop?”
Because of a previous Florida Supreme Court precedent that struck down school vouchers funded through general revenue dollars, there’s much debate over whether this bill would be considered constitutional. The new, more conservative supreme court could reverse the old precedent.
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who chairs the committee, said she believes the bill is constitutional.
“The first step is to pass it," she said. “Then it’s up to the courts."

March 13, 2019

Florida House files bill with broader school voucher expansion than the Senate’s proposal

EVE EDELHEIT | Times Students work in a classroom at Brighton Preparatory School in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, May 3, 2016.
The Florida House Education committee filed a major education bill Tuesday evening that would create a new private school voucher paid for by general revenue dollars in an aggressive expansion of voucher programs much broader than what was proposed by the Senate.
Even though the Legislative session is only in its second week, already, both chambers have proposed major education packages that promise to bring heated debate over the issue of using public dollars to help families send their kids to private schools. After the Senate proposed their bill, the House companion has been eagerly awaited.
But, according to the bill analysis, the House version would offer 28,000 of the new vouchers, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, for next school year. That’s about double what the Senate pitched for its first year of the program. Both plans are designed to eliminate the waiting list of about 14,000 students currently approved to receive the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is offered to low-income families.
The House goes beyond that waiting list figure by offering vouchers to families that make up to 300 percent of the federal poverty line, or about $77,250 for a family of four, according to the bill analysis. That income threshold would steadily rise over time, allowing families that make up to $96,572 to participate in the 2022-2023 school year.
The Senate proposed a cutoff around $67,000 for next school year and does not raise its threshold over time.
The other major difference between the two chambers is that the House’s bill is limited only to the expansion and revision of school vouchers. Meanwhile, the Senate has consistently said they were taking a “balanced approach” to this issue by providing a package bill that creates the new voucher but also beefs up the teacher bonus program and allows districts increased flexibility to build new construction, which districts have long desired.
This House bill is scheduled to be heard for the first time on Thursday in the House Education committee.

March 07, 2019

Florida House takes microscope to university and college construction

FSU drone shot
SCOTT KEELER | Times FOR FILE- Aerial of Florida State University campus with Doak Campbell Stadium in the foreground, Tallahassee.
Two days after Florida House Speaker José Oliva criticized higher education’s “endless appetite for new construction," colleges and universities appeared before a House committee to justify their requests for state funds to build or renovate buildings.
They faced a meticulous financial questioning about each project on Thursday, and House Higher Education Appropriations committee chair Rep. Randy Fine said that process would continue for the next two weeks.
The questioning spurred universities and colleges to bring out the big guns — Florida State University President John Thrasher, a former speaker of the Florida House and Florida Atlantic University Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, former president of the Florida Senate, both attended. So did a slew of other college presidents and provosts, in addition to the usual cadre of lobbyists.
“This is not a kabuki exercise, this is a legitimate exercise to vet these projects," Fine said. “I think some projects did a great job of justifying themselves, and may be frankly, to me a no-brainer. Others, I still have some questions.”
Thrasher said he felt the process was appropriate scrutiny over how the institutions use taxpayer money. After it was discovered that the University of Central Florida and others improperly used operational dollars for construction, the Florida House has turned up the heat.
But Thrasher also said he hopes the Legislature will continue to recognize that the universities are investments for the good of the entire state. Lawmakers in past years have challenged Florida’s universities to rise in national rankings, which several, including FSU, have done.
“Our overall point is to try to reach a higher level of expertise,” he said. “We think (the construction projects) will be beneficial to the university system and to the state of Florida, for that matter.”
Many of the projects under scrutiny have already begun with an initial investment of state dollars. However, that doesn’t mean that the state has an obligation to fund the rest of the construction. Among the projects addressed were: a new data sciences facility and new music building at the University of Florida; a business studies building, an interdisciplinary facility and a sciences lab at Florida State University.
Miami-Dade College’s executive vice president and provost Lenore Rodicio also presented, making the case for funding so the college can renovate its law enforcement training facility as well as a building it will use to train students to engineer and fix Tesla electric cars.

March 06, 2019

Florida school voucher bill passes first committee but Republicans disagree on funding source

It was only the second day of the legislative session, but Tuesday already saw a packed committee room and spirited debate over an education package bill that could be one of the most consequential bills of the 2019 session.
Senate Bill 7070 passed the Senate Education Committee along party lines on Tuesday.
The bill proposes to:
  • create a new school voucher, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, that would allow general revenue tax dollars to be used for private schools to eliminate the wait-list for the existing scholarship for low-income families
  • change and expand the Best and Brightest teacher bonus program to remove teachers’ SAT and ACT test scores from their eligibility requirements and create new financial awards for teachers and principals based on student performance
  • create a new grant program for schools to have more funding for health care, extra food, social services and other programs for needy students
  • give school districts additional flexibility with how they use locally collected tax dollars to build new buildings
  • ease some of the requirements surrounding teacher certification, such as giving prospective teachers more time to pass a required exam
Allowing general revenue dollars typically set aside for districts to go toward vouchers would be a major change in the way the state views public education. But Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the chair of the committee, said it’s moving Florida into the future.
“Our duty is to educate the children,” he said. “Our duty is not (dependent on) where they are educated. It the fact we are providing the resources to be educated for the ultimate goal of providing citizens that are capable and responsible for upholding our republic and this is the way to do it.”
The biggest surprise of the meeting came from Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs, an influential Republican who is second-in-command to Senate President Bill Galvano.
A passionate advocate for the community grant program, he said that he supports the bill, but thinks the new voucher should not be funded out of general revenue. A similar proposal was struck down as unconstitutional by the state supreme court in 2006, which Simmons said could be a problem for this bill.
“All we have to do is expand that system ... within the corporate tax scholarship umbrella that already exists,” Simmons said. “It’s not essential to take it out of the (per-student allocation).”
Simmons said the state could give corporations tax credits in exchange for them directing their corporate income tax, insurance tax and others to the voucher fund, which is similar to how it is funded now. That way, the dollars would be dedicated to the program before they reach the state’s coffers and are set aside for schools.
Diaz said he is “not adverse” to the idea.
More than 50 teachers, parents and advocates attended the committee to weigh in on the bill. Some parents applauded the new voucher, which is designed to eliminate the wait-list for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which grants money to low-income families for private or religious schools.
Giselle Gomez, a mother from Ocala, said she sent her son to a Christian school because she thought it would be more equipped to handle his behavioral issues.
“I’ve been unable to make payments, it’s been really embarrassing,” she said. “I implore the Senate to end the waiting list.”
Scores of teachers also spoke, most of them opposed to giving public money that’s typically set aside for districts instead to these vouchers. Several also said the state needs to go beyond the bonus program and offer raises across the board.
“We cannot bonus our way out of a severe teacher shortage,” said Andrea Cochran, a high school teacher from Port Orange.
Democrats on the committee, voted against the bill but also withdrew their amendments, saying there is still time for the committee to achieve compromise.

March 04, 2019

Koch group launches TV ad calling for universal school vouchers

A screen grab from the ad on Youtube
The Legislative session doesn’t kick off until Tuesday but it’s already clear that the education policy debate will be different this year. With a new, conservative state Supreme Court and Gov. Ron DeSantis pushing for allowing tax dollars to subsidize students more going to private schools, many long-time education advocates have said 2019 feels like a big moment for the school choice movement.
One major advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, which is supported by billionaire Charles Koch, launched a TV ad on Monday that will run in Tallahassee for two weeks to convince lawmakers to support universal school vouchers, also called “education savings accounts" or “education scholarship accounts.”
This policy would upend the way public school has been funded for generations. It would mean the state grants vouchers to all Florida families so they can use public money to attend school wherever they choose, whether that be a district, charter or private school, or even homeschooling.
That ambitious goal may not be accomplished this year, but the group is hoping it’s in the cards for the near future.
The ad strikes a bipartisan note, at a when when Americans for Prosperity is striving to make more alliances in both parties after years of being associated chiefly with Republicans.
The ad uses sound bytes from Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Gov. Jeb Bush and presidents Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and Donald Trump all speaking generally about the need to reform education.
“Every student deserves access to educational opportunity,” the ad’s narrator says at the end of the 30-second spot. “Ask your legislator to create education scholarship accounts for every student.”
The ad’s release on Monday coincided with a “Day of Action” announced by the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union that has long been opposed to vouchers. The union said teachers and school staff would be holding rallies across the state to advocate to lawmakers to adequately fund district schools.

February 28, 2019

Bill filed to require 80 percent of school funding spent ‘in the classroom’

A bill filed to fulfill Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign pitch that 80 percent of education funds be spent "in the classroom" would include student materials, like textbooks, in that calculation. [Times (2014)]
On the campaign trail, Gov. Ron DeSantis pitched the idea that 80 percent of education funding be spent “in the classroom,” claiming that there is too much wasted on administration and not enough spent on kids’ learning.
Questions have surrounded that proposal from the start, but it’s also taken its first step toward becoming law.
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, filed a bill that makes that percentage a requirement and also takes a stab at defining what “classroom” spending would include. The bill says teachers’ salaries and bonuses, classroom supplies, technology for students and tutoring would all fall into this category.
Still, even Republicans have expressed doubt that making it to the 80 percent threshold is possible, considering the costs of guidance counselors, school buses, cafeteria staff and the myriad of other expenses that are related to student success and not included in the administration.
“This is clearly a bill that is going to need a lot more work. This is a starting point and a tip of the hat to governor’s desire (to get to 80 percent),” Diaz said.
He added that the Legislature will need to work to further define “classroom” spending and may also need to completely remove from the percentage calculation some, non-classroom expenses that are deemed essential by lawmakers, such as those related to school lunches.
“Our funding system is so complex most people, even in the Legislature, don’t understand it,” Diaz said. That means it’s time to be “having that conversation and digging deep into the weeds … (to find) which one of these (expenses) was put in because it was politically viable.”

February 25, 2019

Florida Supreme Court approves DeSantis’ ask for grand jury on school safety

The Florida Supreme Court in Tallahassee. [Scott Keeler Tampa Bay Times]
The Florida Supreme Court justices unanimously agreed to impanel a statewide grand jury to broadly investigate school safety, in an order issued Monday. The decision came after Gov. Ron DeSantis filed a petition on Feb. 13 to ask for the grand jury, which he said should have sweeping powers to oversee both the government failures leading up to last year’s Parkland school shooting as well as any ongoing misdeeds committed by districts that are not following the school safety law passed after the tragedy.
“I am pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision,” DeSantis said in a statement. “This grand jury will work to investigate practices, identify failures and recommend solutions to keep students, teachers and staff safe in our schools.”
Mirroring the language in DeSantis’ request, the court’s order said the grand jury will investigate whether districts’ “refusal or failure” to follow school safety laws put students at risk, whether government officials committed “fraud and deceit” by using public money designated for school safety for other purposes or whether schools intentionally under-report criminal incidents to the state.
The grand jury, which will have jurisdiction over the entire state, will have its presiding judge be in the 17th Circuit — which is Broward County. It will meet for a year and will have the regular powers to issue subpoenas and indictments.
It’s a highly unusual use of a statewide grand jury, but DeSantis has said it will compliment the work of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which investigated the shooting and made recommendations to the Legislature.
Except the grand jury will have much more legal might to investigate the Broward school district and others statewide. Both the commission and several Parkland families have complained publicly about what they say is continued incompetence in Broward to implement school safety measures even now, more than a year after the shooting.

February 21, 2019

Florida Senate Republicans propose new voucher, changes to teacher bonus program

Thirty-five kindergarten students pack the rug for a story and lesson as teachers Ann Renee Evans, center back, and Cassandra Hinson, right, lead the way at Connerton Elementary. Times | 2013
After a string of announcements from Gov. Ron DeSantis unveiling his proposals for a new school voucher and other changes to education policy, the Florida Senate responded with its own plan to shape the state’s schools — which had some differences.
At a press conference at the Capitol on Thursday, three top Republican senators said the Senate is seeking to create a new school voucher called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which would help reduce the lengthy waiting list of students awaiting the state’s existing scholarship for low-income students, called the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship.
Unlike the existing scholarship, though, the new voucher would draw its funding from the pot of money typically set aside solely to be distributed to districts based on the number of students they have — a dramatic change. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship is funded through corporate donations that the companies deduct from their taxes.
“My plan is to provide relief for these kids that are on a waiting list and these parents that want provide a better educational setting for their child and they are not able to simply because there are arbitrary financial barriers in place that won’t allow them,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
The statewide teachers’ union, the Florida Education Association, called this move dangerous for the state’s public schools.
“This plan represents a monumental shift of taxpayer funds to private schools,” said union president Fedrick Ingram in a statement. “What our students need is a monumental commitment to their neighborhood public schools, the schools that educate most of our kids.”
Diaz said the Senate's proposal is very similar to the Equal Opportunity Scholarship that DeSantis proposed last week, which relied on the same funding source. However, there is major difference in eligibility, as the Senate’s proposed scholarship would only be available to students who had previously been enrolled in public school or who were entering kindergarten. DeSantis’ plan aimed to make the voucher available for students even if they had only attended private schools, a wish-list item for school choice advocates.
There is also a slight difference in the income eligibility requirements between what DeSantis’ proposed, which allowed families making up to 265 percent of the poverty line, which is higher than the 260 percent provided in current law. The Senate is looking to keep that eligibility requirement at 260 percent, Diaz said.
The Senate incorporated DeSantis’ ask that teachers’ SAT and ACT test scores should no longer be factored into their consideration for recruitment and retention bonuses under the Best and Brightest program. But the Senators went a step further, saying they want to create a new category for teacher bonuses that could be awarded by school principals who see excelling educators who weren’t awarded bonuses based on the typical metrics of student performance.
Diaz also said they would follow DeSantis’ recommendation that to receive a bonus, teachers must work at a school that is improving its letter grade, with exceptions for schools that are consistently performing at the top grade levels.
“We don’t want to punish a school that has been at the top because they have a small blip,” Diaz said. “It’s hard to stay up there.”
Finally, the Senate would also like to remove some requirements for teacher certification, giving more time for prospective educators to pass the general knowledge exam, according to Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who was also at Thursday’s announcement. And they are hoping to expand a grant program for schools in low-income communities to offer health care, social services and other aid to students who need it, said Sen. David Simmons of Altamonte Springs.
The policy proposals will be filed as one, large package bill by the first week of the legislative session, which begins March 5. That’s a strategy that has been used by the House in the past, which faced criticism in 2017 for combining many education bills into one omnibus, House Bill 7069, at the eleventh hour of the session.
Critics say package bills create a take-it-or-leave-it bargaining environment, but Diaz said filing it as a package from the start rather than bundling bills together at the end will be more transparent.

February 19, 2019

Andrew Gillum, United Teachers of Dade's pick for governor, featured on robocall endorsing union leadership


Back when the Florida gubernatorial primaries were in full swing last fall, Miami's teacher's union went out on a limb for Andrew Gillum -- against its Tallahassee union leadership's pick of Gwen Graham.

Gillum appears to have returned the favor. The former Democratic nominee for governor sent a robocall to Miami-Dade County Public Schools teachers on President's Day endorsing the incumbent leadership of UTD in Wednesday's union election.

"Hi, this Mayor Andrew Gillum calling on the behalf of UTD's Frontline Caucus," Gillum said in the message, praising the "incredible leadership" of president Karla Hernandez-Mats, vice president Tony White and secretary treasurer Mindy Grimes-Festge.

"When Karla and Tony and Mindy told me they had a bold plan to campaign for the largest teacher pay raise in Miami-Dade history, I said, 'Count me in,' because you all deserve it," he said. "And wow, the Frontline Caucus delivered."

Gillum went on to call the base 12.5 percent supplement that came out of a four-year, voter-approved referendum, which he endorsed on the campaign trial, a "pay increase." In annual pay raise negotiations, UTD and the school district agreed to a raise this year that yielded 0.8 percent to 1.1 percent more for teachers.

UTD's political action committee, Teachers for Public School Excellence, donated $40,000 to Gillum's committee Forward Florida just before the November election. UTD also hosted Gillum's election night watch party in Miami.

Only UTD members can vote in Wednesday's leadership election. Member teachers vote on ballots at their school site, which will be taken to Firefighter's Memorial Building, 8000 NW 21st St in Doral, for the tally around 3 p.m. Candidates run for three-year terms.

The Frontline caucus faces opposition from UTD's Progressive caucus, which has named Mari Corugedo, Harold Ford and David Moss to its executive board slate. Candidates Ricardo Ocampo and Joseph Howard are also running for president.

The Miami Herald has reached out to Hernandez-Mats for comment.

February 12, 2019

Bill to arm Florida teachers passes first committee along party lines

SCOTT KEELER | Times 20 protesters participate in a Die-In on the fourth floor rotunda of the Florida Capitol, 3/6/18. They continue to push for an assault weapons ban. Lawmakers in the Florida House were debating a gun/school safety bill at the time.
A bill that would allow Florida’s teachers to carry guns in schools passed its first committee along party lines Tuesday, setting up what could be one of the most heated debates of the 2019 legislative session.
Senate Bill 7030 expands the “Guardian” program created by last year’s post-Parkland bill, by which school staff can volunteer to carry guns on campus and then be screened and trained by local law enforcement. In current law, teachers that “exclusively perform classroom duties" are ineligible to participate.
But this new expansion would remove that prohibition. An amendment to once again remove teachers from the program was proposed by Sen. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, but it also failed along party lines in the Senate Education Committee.
Students “deserve to have someone ready,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala during the committee meeting, shortly before he voted against Berman’s amendment. “Certainly if you’re charged with their safety we should not ask them to charge hell with a water pistol, stand there and be a victim with no way to defend yourself or others from harm.”
The committee room was packed on Tuesday as groups including the state teachers’ union and Moms Demand Action spoke against the bill, citing the many risks associated with bringing more guns on campus. There have already been instances of guns accidentally being fired or being left in school bathrooms for students to find in other states, they said.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said the state has not allowed enough time to evaluate the current success arming school staff but is charging ahead with expanding the program anyway.
"We’re at the verge of considering a monumental change in public education,” he said. "We are shifting the mission of public education from being one of teaching to being one of teaching and law enforcement.”
Montford did, however, successfully add an amendment to the bill that gives school superintendents the authority to approve or reject specific teachers who want to be armed in their districts.
The Republicans who supported the bill emphasized that this proposal is based on the recommendations of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which has spent months reviewing the footage and failings of the Parkland shooting nearly one year ago. That commission, led by Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, formally recommended training teachers to carry weapons in school for a quick response to school shootings.
If the teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School “had the opportunity to be ‘guardians’ they would be alive today and so would many other students,” said Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland. “That sends chills up my spine.”
The chair of the committee, Sen. Manny Diaz of Hialeah, also pointed to the fact that many teachers who take on additional duties, such as being a “hall monitor” or “sponsoring a club” would already be eligible to carry a gun under the current law. This bill “simply just removes the piece that says they have to have an additional duty,” he said.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the bill would have any additional committee assignments. None were listed online, but Diaz speculated it could head to Senate Appropriations to determine how different pieces would be funded. If not, its next destination would be the Senate Floor. The formal legislative session does not begin until March 5 and lawmakers are only meeting in committees in the weeks leading up to that date.
In addition to allowing all teachers to be eligible to carry guns, Senate Bill 7030 also increases state oversight over districts’ compliance with the various school safety measures in last year’s post-Parkland bill. It also would require sheriffs to offer training to school staff if the school district decides to opt-in to the program.
Currently, it is optional for both the district and the local sheriff’s office, and the commission has reported that there are several districts who want to arm staff but the local sheriff’s departments won’t agree to implement the program.