May 24, 2018

Special session to boost education funding? It's not happening. Republicans vote for status quo.

By Jeffrey Solochek, Tampa Bay Times Corcoran and Sheve Jones

To almost no one's surprise, a last ditch effort to bring Florida lawmakers back to Tallahassee for another conversation about public education funding has failed.

A group of House Democrats, led by Reps. Shevrin Jones and Nicholas Duran, used an obscure law by which 20 percent of the Legislature could require a poll to determine whether a special session would take place.

Three-fifths of the members in each chamber would have to agree. The vote fell far short.

In the House, all 41 Democrats supported the measure. Not a single Republican did.

In the Senate, all 16 Democrats backed the call. Not one Republican joined them. In fact, the nearly half the Senate Republicans did not even participate in the survey, including former president Tom Lee (Hillsborough), future president Wilton Simpson (Pasco) and president pro tempore Anitere Flores (Miami-Dade).

Secretary of State Ken Detzner announced the survey results Thursday, after the noon deadline had passed. The outcome was all but certain two days earlier, though, as the emerging tally made clear the 60 percent threshold wouldn't be reached.

The Democrats made their push amid school leader complaints that the state's public education budget for the coming fiscal year did not include enough added funding to cover rising daily costs, while also not meeting the Legislature's demands for increased school security and mental health services.

Republican leaders fired back with a video insisting the state's education funding had reached record levels, and arguing the detractors misrepresented the budget. Gov. Rick Scott also stood by the spending plan, which he signed despite calls for a veto by superintendents and others.

Rep. Jones, the ranking Democrat on the House Education committee, said it was unfortunate the effort failed.

"I'm thankful for my Democratic colleagues for understanding and keeping true to our values, which we have consistently been fighting for," he said. "We will continue our commitment to fight on behalf of our teachers and on behalf of our students.

"How do we do that? The people will always rise."

Students, parents and educators are becoming fed up with a legislative system that does not share that priority, Jones said, suggesting the electorate will take matters into its own hands.

"We fight on," he said.

Soon after Detzner's official pronouncement that the special session hadn't passed, the Florida Education Association issued a statement noting that Scott easily could have called lawmakers back on his own, if he had the will.

"This is very sad news for our schools, but no surprise given the current political landscape," FEA president Joanne McCall said in the release. "It's sad news for all of us, because the whole state loses when public education is harmed. The only bright spot I see, going forward, is that we can change our political landscape this fall at the polls."

House Democratic leaders who called for the session could not be immediately reached for comment.

Related: Florida Dems use obscure law in last-ditch effort to call Legislature back for more school funding 

Photo: Rep. Shevrin Jones confers with House Speaker Richard Corcoran in a recent Florida legislative session. [The Florida House]


March 26, 2018

Major school voucher expansion proposals won't be on November ballot

Commissioner Erika Donalds speaks during a CRC meeting last week on the floor of the Florida Senate. | Florida Channel

When the members of the Constitution Revision Commission were appointed by Florida's top political leaders, the list was full of prominent school choice advocates. It seemed the CRC was gearing up to amend Florida's constitution to finally allow for the major expansion of school vouchers the Legislature has long sought.

Instead, the 37-member commission dropped its two major voucher expansion proposals last week — and the CRC only meets every 20 years to determine constitutional amendments to put on the ballot.

"There is somewhat of a consensus this is going to be resolved by the courts," said CRC member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped found a charter school there. Her husband is state Rep. Byron Donalds, a Republican member from Naples.

"In both cases, I think there is great support for both of those ideas on the CRC which is what makes it even harder not to move forward with it ... (but) I try to step back and look at the big picture at what can only be fixed through the constitution."

Proposal 4 would have struck the Blaine Amendment from the state constitution — which prohibits public money from going to any religious institution, and thus any religiously affiliated private school.

After a short but robust debate on Wednesday, that proposal was "temporarily postponed."

Donalds said they will not bring it up again.

She also withdrew proposal 45, which would have added language to the constitution saying "nothing herein may be construed to limit the Legislature from making provision for other educational services ... that are in addition to the system of free public schools."

Both proposals would have paved the way for a major expansion of vouchers by the Legislature, which have so far been limited to students with particular needs, such as being low-income, a victim of bullying or having a disability.

Donalds said several recent actions by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the a decision last year allowing public money to go toward a playground at a church — have made school choice advocates confident that the justices will eventually undo the 2007 Florida Supreme Court decision, Bush v. Holmes, that declared the state's voucher program unconstitutional.

For that to happen, someone must again challenge Florida's voucher programs.

But any proposals that make it to the ballot in the general election must receive at least 60 percent support to make it into the constitution, and recent polling done by Clearview Research found that Proposal 4 fell far below that threshold. Clearview often does work for Democratic causes but this poll was not done for any particular client, according to president Steven Vancore.

Only 41 percent of respondents said they would vote "yes" on the proposal and 51 percent of respondents declared they would vote "no." The research firm did not conduct polling on proposal 45.

The Florida Education Association opined that the polling was more likely the reason for the proposals' removal from consideration by the CRC. A similar amendment was also on the ballot in 2012 and it was defeated.

"There was no reason to submit the same proposal to the voters again especially after  polling was released that shows the voters really haven’t changed their minds on funding religious programs," said FEA president Joanne McCall.

Whatever the reason, Floridians won't be voting on voucher expansion on November's ballot. Instead, the remaining education proposals include term limits for school board members and a program for high-performing districts to have charter-like flexibility on certain regulations for hiring and facilities.

March 22, 2018

Proposal encouraging district-charter school competition moves closer to ballot

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The proposal to amend Florida's constitution has been championed by Miami leaders, including Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. C.M. GUERRERO

A proposal to loosen requirements on the state's highest-performing school districts so they can better compete with charter schools moved forward Wednesday, putting it one step closer to being on the ballot in November.

The measure, Proposal 93, was approved by the obscure yet powerful Constitution Revision Commission, the 37-member body that meets every 20 years in Florida to put constitutional amendments on the ballot. All proposals that have made it this far still have to be officially passed in another vote in April to be on the ballot.

This proposal would allow high-performing districts, graded an "A" or "B" for example, to become designated as an "innovation school district" (changed from its previous name of "charter districts"). Those districts would have more autonomy over their curriculum, facilities and hiring practices, for example, that charter schools already enjoy.

"I believe in choice ... it's also a choice to go to a public school," said Roberto Martinez, an influential Miami attorney and a Republican, who sponsored Proposal 93. "What this proposal seeks to do is to provide public school systems that are high-performing the same flexibility we are giving charter schools ... to give them the flexibility and innovation to allow them to excel."

This proposal nearly died in committee in January, as some members of the CRC expressed concern that this was too radical a step to put directly into the constitution. But on Wednesday it moved forward with a 24-9 vote, signifying enough support to possibly bring it to the finish line.

Previously, the Florida Education Association — the statewide teachers' union — said they agreed with the concept but were cautious about the wording and interpretation. One of the proposal's biggest supporters is Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

Martinez said he has not heard from any district in opposition.

March 07, 2018

Teaching high schoolers to balance a checkbook likely won't be a graduation requirement, despite bill's advancement toward passage

Sen. Dorothy Hukill presents her bill Nov. 8, 2017, to set a financial literacy high school graduation requirement. [The Florida Channel]

Despite several years of trying from the bill's sponsors, a financial literacy course likely won't be a graduation requirement for high school students in Florida next school year.

The Florida House advanced a bill on Tuesday to require schools to offer students a "financial literacy" course, but does not require students to take the elective. The House also added on a few other issues to the bill, including that schools provide computer science classes.

For Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, making this course a graduation requirement has been a passion project for the past five years. She said she was unsatisfied with the House's changes.

"It has nothing to do with my financial literacy bill," she said.

A financial literacy course would include teaching high schoolers how to balance a checkbook, manage debt, pay taxes and apply for loans.

Hukill's bill passed three Senate committees unanimously. At one point, this graduation requirement was also part of the Legislature's massive education package, HB 7055, but it was removed in a last-minute, sweeping amendment in the Senate.

Rep. Heather Fitzenhagen, R-Fort Myers, who has also worked on this issue for several years, said it was changed to be an optional class so it could get enough support in the House.

"There were some concerns that we would be putting a mandate on school systems," she said. "The only way it was able to get the traction necessary to get to the floor was for it to become a permissive course."

The bill still needs to formally pass the House and will then go back to the Senate so it can approve the changes. There, it could be amended but it is unlikely because there are only a few days left in session and that would elongate its progress.

Hukill said she hopes for better luck next session.

"It's a disappointment," she said. "But I'm a patient woman at this point."

March 06, 2018

After dramatic rejection of New York job, Carvalho gets the royal treatment in Miami



At his first major public appearance since turning down a job as head of New York City schools, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho got the royal treatment — literally.

“So Alberto, Mister Superintendent, Your Highness,” joked moderator Steve Clemons, Washington Editor at Large for The Atlantic. “I know the top three or four reasons why I would choose Miami over New York, but what were yours?”

Clemons’ reference to last week’s dramatic school board meeting in which children and adults begged Carvalho not to leave Miami-Dade was met with laughter from the audience at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. But it also elicited a new explanation from the superintendent, and one that was decidedly less kingly than the reasons he gave for his decision last week.

“I am a true believer that if you want me to land the championship ring, if you want to win the Super Bowl, but I have a field that I’m not going to be able to necessarily pick my quarterback … that the plays will be called, co-consulted, then that may be a deal breaker for me,” Carvalho said.

The superintendent also repeated his earlier explanations that he was dedicated to Miami-Dade and that he had been moved by the response from local teachers, parents and students to his appointment as New York City schools chancellor. The football metaphor, however, appears to confirm a Politico report that Mayor Bill de Blasio wasn’t going to let Carvalho pick his own chief of staff or human resources director and that retiring Chancellor Carmen Fariña would have had a continuing influence on the school district. Read more here.

March 02, 2018

Florida Senate advances massive education bill with last-minute changes

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa SCOTT KEELER | Times

The Florida Senate advanced HB 7055 on Friday, but it wasn't the same education package that had passed through a committee earlier in the week.

A major amendment filed the evening before it went to the floor for a vote was the result of negotiations with House members, said sponsor Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. Those negotiations were not public.

Among the new changes, the amendment:

  • Added a new sales tax funding source for the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher for disabled students to attend private schools
  • Removed proposed accountability measures to prevent unethical profits from charter school construction
  • Removed a pitch to make a financial literacy course a high school graduation requirement
  • Increased the amount of money a person can donate to the new Hope Scholarship vouchers for bullied students, from $20 to $105, matching the House's version.

Passidomo spoke at length about how the Senate had resisted the attempts of the House to fast-track the bill by attaching it to the budget, and said the Senate had chosen the transparent path.

"Everything in this bill everyone has had on opportunity to look at," she said. "Our president wanted to make sure that the bill went through Senate committees to allow time for review, edits, testimony and discussion about issues important to all of us."

The bill now allows tenants of commercial property to direct the sales tax of their rent away from the state's general fund and into the account for the Gardiner Scholarship, up to $57.5 million. The Gardiner Scholarship is a publicly funded voucher for students with mental or physical disabilities to be able to attend private schools.

Democrats unsuccessfully tried to remove a highly controversial piece of HB 7055 which requires teachers' unions to have 50 percent of all people eligible to be in the union be dues-paying members. It does not apply to unions of other professions. Teachers' unions are a core constituency for the Democratic Party.

Teachers' unions have decried the rule as union-busting and unfair, especially in the wake of the Parkland shooting during which three teachers were killed protecting students.

Then in a dramatically tense moment on the floor, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, stood defiant of his party as he proposed an amendment to relax the threshold to 40 percent, calling the 50 percent margin "mean-spirited" and "punitive." Twice the Senate President, Joe Negron, R-Stuart, asked him to finish speaking on his amendment but Lee continued anyway.

"I know how easy it is to come up here and go along and get along," he said. "I also didn't come to Tallahassee to be told what to do. ... There isn't a budget amendment or a bill I care about more than doing the right thing."

That amendment failed in a 19-19 tie, with three Republicans — Sen. Dana Young of Tampa, Sen. Rene Garcia of Hialeah and Sen. Greg Steube of Sarasota — voting with Lee and the Democrats.

HB 7055 still needs to be formally passed by the Senate, which it is expected to do in the coming days. The bill will then go back to the House for final approval before it is sent to the governor.

At the same time the Senate spent hours in debate on this bill, the House moved forward HB 1, a separate bill with the same bullying voucher program in 7055. Several pieces of the package bill have been similarly peeled off in the House, an indication that it could be prepping for the measures to still go into effect in case HB 7055 doesn't pass into law.

The House also advanced a major tax package on Friday that included a sales tax funding source up to $154 million for multiple types of school vouchers.

February 27, 2018

Broward teacher on new union requirements: "My friends just got slaughtered for saving kids' lives"

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School sign, wrapped in crime scene tape, reads "#MSDSTRONG" on Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018, in Parkland, Fla. A mass shooting that killed 17 people took place at the school last week. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times


A proposal to require teachers' unions to have at least 50 percent of all eligible union members pay dues or risk being decertified has seen plenty of twists and turns in the Florida Legislature this session. But it took on new meaning after the Parkland shooting, during which three teachers were killed protecting their students.

On Tuesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to add this union rule to the Legislature's comprehensive education package, House Bill 7055.

"My friends just got slaughtered for saving kids' lives," said Anna Fusco, president of the Broward Teachers Union, after the vote. "And then they want to sit up there and act like it's not ... about busting our union."

The union rule was voted out of the bill in its previous committee stop in the Senate, while Parkland students were visiting the Legislature less than a week after the shooting. Sen. Perry Thurston, Jr., D-Lauderhill, gave an emotional speech about the teachers who had "jumped in front of the gunman," and he forced committee members to voice their votes individually.

But after Tuesday's vote it is back in the bill, which is likely headed for the Senate floor within days. It has already passed the House.

The Senate committee vote was primarily along party lines, with one Republican, Sen. Anitere Flores from Miami, voting with the Democrats against the education package.  She said her opposition was because of the union portion.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said this bill ensures unions are represented only by people that the majority of the group agrees with. It requires that teachers' unions have at least 50 percent of all eligible union members pay dues or they must appeal to keep their certification.

"It's about legitimacy," he said.

Supporters of Americans for Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers network, also motioned their support. The group has sent out mailers praising HB 7055 and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, by name.

Although the bill only applies to teachers' unions, bargaining units for crane workers and other trades came to the meeting to oppose it.

Fusco said her union is well above the required threshold. But it's about principle.

"People can't afford it and they still reap the benefits," she said of non-dues-paying teachers. She added that the members of the Florida Legislature aren't required to get 50 percent of all eligible voters to choose them — just 50 percent of everyone who votes.

"They want to put us at a higher level than when they get voted in. It's disheartening."

February 26, 2018

After Parkland, Florida looks to mental health programs and campus officers as fixes. But it's underfunded both.

PARKLAND, FL - FEBRUARY 25: People visit Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 25, 2018 in Parkland, Florida. Today, students and parents were allowed on campus for the first time since the shooting that killed 17 people on February 14. Police arrested 19-year-old former student Nikolas Cruz for the 17 murders. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Just two days after the Parkland massacre, a couple of high school girls were injured by a drive-by shooting outside Middleton High School in Tampa.

Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, visited the school shortly after to see what he could do. He said he was shocked to learn the school's 1,600 students had only one psychologist, who only worked three days a week.

“It’s virtually nonexistent what school districts are doing to help the mental health of our students,” Rouson said.

Middleton's situation is not uncommon in Florida, where school mental health programs have been chronically underfunded and short-staffed for decades. Yet Florida's leaders are pointing to this same cash-starved system as a way to treat more students who could pose possible threats.

To make good on that, they'll have to make up for lost ground.

Read more here


February 14, 2018

Under Florida House proposal, going to the store could mean funding school vouchers

Gabriella Angotti-Jones | Times

Most people don't consider walking into a corner store and buying a gallon of milk to be a controversial action. But under a new proposal in the Florida House, part of that sales tax could pay for school vouchers that have been a flash point between lawmakers and activists.

The proposal, only a small piece of a larger tax package passed through the Ways and Means Committee on Wednesday, would open up sales tax revenue to finance two of the state's major voucher programs that allow low-income students and those with disabilities to attend private schools on the state's dime.

If it succeeds, this would be a big first for a specific education program to draw money from consumer-directed sales tax — which has previously been off-limits for earmarks. The sales tax is largely directed to the state's general fund, which pays for everything from roads to public schools. the sales tax is the state's largest funding source. It produced $24.6 billion in 2016.

"These are mostly poor minority students who are struggling academically and ... they're looking for a lifeboat for a better education," said Paul Renner, R-Palm Coast, the chair of Ways and Means.  "There is a demand that far exceeds what the SFOs (scholarship-funding organizations) have been able to access."

He added that he didn't think using sales tax for school vouchers would open the floodgates for different causes.

"Are people going to come out of the woodwork? They'll have to make their case," Renner said. "This is a compelling case to help those that have educational needs."

Currently, the state has a few programs allow businesses to get tax credits on their sales tax for creating jobs or contributing to the state's agricultural sector. However, this would be the first time businesses could essentially earmark their sales tax for a specific purpose rather than going to the state's general bank account.

The House's proposal would allow businesses to opt-in to this program and cap scholarship funding at $154 million, allowing the wait-lists of the existing Gardiner and Florida Tax Credit Scholarships to substantially shrink. Those dollars would go straight to the organizations administering the scholarships, rather than to state's general revenue.

Democrats condemned the measure as a "giveaway" and a way for the state to inch its way into taking away a piece of the state's most important funding source from traditional public schools.

Rep. Joseph Abruzzo of Boynton Beach, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, asked repeatedly to have this piece separated from the rest of the tax package, which both parties had cooperated to draft. Those amendments failed.

"The truth of the matter is ... this is not just for the poorest of the poorest of the poor anymore," he said. "It started out just a corporate tax scholarship, we're moving into fees and now in this bill we have gone into the unbelievable realm of sales tax. That is just wrong."

Even Rep. Margaret Good — who was elected just Tuesday night to represent Sarasota in a victory for Democrats in a typical Republican stronghold — spoke at a press conference opposing this bill shortly before she was sworn in.

"Over the last five months I have knocked on a lot of doors and talked to a lot of voters in Sarasota who are really concerned about our public education system," she said.

Funding for school vouchers has exploded in the years since they were created. The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program began as a $50 million project in 2001, and will give out close to $700 million in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the Department of Education.

February 07, 2018

Florida House and Senate posture for conflict over omnibus education bill

SCOTT KEELER | TIMES State Senator Rob Bradley

It’s still early in the session, but the Florida House and Senate already inched closer to conflict as both chambers drew a line in the sand on the process surrounding a mega-bill that would fundamentally alter many aspects of Florida’s education.

House Bill 7055, at nearly 200-pages, wraps together several bills and skates across a myriad of issues from scholarships to bullying to testing to school governance to teachers’ unions. It also, in a single line, makes the state’s per-student funding of public schools, or $21.1 billion, “contingent upon PCS for HB 7055 or similar legislation becoming law.”

Until now, Senate Republicans had remained mute in response to the shouts from Democrats that the bill’s massive volume precludes transparency and even that the budget tie-in could be unconstitutional. But on Wednesday, the Republican chair of the committee that controls the purse strings in the Senate said the House’s gamesmanship was not right — a sign of the fight to come, and the political posturing of both chambers ahead of the budget negotiating process.

“When you do it that way you don’t send it through the normal process of the committees and have the debate, the testimony you receive that you do in the committee process,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island. “You lose the ability to amend because it’s an up or down vote on what is in front of the Senator.”

Bradley then said he is a “school choice guy” who generally supports the policy in the bill, but objects to the House’s hardball with the budget.

“You’ve made the stakes (about) are we going to get to go home on time and have a budget completed, rather than if this is a good idea or not for the people of the state of Florida?” he said.

Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, has said the pieces of HB 7055 have been heard separately in committees and that the budget measure was appropriate because portions of the bill would significantly change the formula for the way per-student funding is calculated, meaning the two are inextricably linked.

“This is something that will go into conference negotiations so that’s something that can be talked about,” he said in response to Bradley’s comments. “I think it’s early to be having those conversations.”

After the chambers pass their budgets and related education measures, the two chambers will “conference” to negotiate the differences. The House will vote on its budget Thursday. In less surprising news from the long House floor session, the Democrats were bulldozed over in their policy objections to HB 7055, for which they had proposed more than 30 amendments.

Each was painstakingly debated and voted down, including one by Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, that would have removed the budget tie-in which he called a “dangerous precedent.”

Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, the ranking Democratic member on the House Education Committee who usually is amicable to working with Republicans, said it would be better if the Legislature went back to the drawing board.

“I’ve never said this in my six years in office: I hope the whole thing blows up,” he said. “Pass the budget now, let it fail and then come back here and do it the right way.”