February 25, 2019

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

Supremecourt
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

Classroom
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

IMG_gillum.jpg_6_1_GOF59MFD_L445223402

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

Die-in
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.

February 05, 2019

Should high schoolers be taught how to balance a checkbook? Bill filed again to require it

Grad cap
The Seminole High School Class of 2018 graduation cap and tassel during Commencement Ceremony at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. DIRK SHADD | Times
 
The idea of making “financial literacy” a high school graduation requirement is far from a new idea in the Florida Legislature, but this year its foremost champion has a different face. State Sen. Dorothy Hukill, a Republican from Port Orange, sponsored the measure for years, with the idea that students should be able to balance a checkbook, calculate interest rates and otherwise know how to manage their money before they fully join the workforce.
 
But after Hukill died last year, Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Elkton, has taken up the effort.
 
“She was a good friend,” Hutson said. “So it’s an emotional bill and I’m looking forward to getting it across the finish line in her honor.”
 
The bill, SB 114, passed through its first committee, the Senate Education Committee, with unanimous “yes” votes on Tuesday. Hutson said he’s optimistic that the House, which has in the past been resistant to the idea, will be more open to it this year in part due to some fresh-faced new members.
 
“There are people in the House that are younger that believe this is important and they never had this opportunity whereas their parents did,” he said. "We got rid of this program and we’re bringing this back.”
 
After lawmakers from both parties praised the bill, several also said they should consider extending the school day or the school year as more curriculum requirements and programs pile up, plus it would help keep Florida “competitive,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.
 
“When you have a limited amount of time there’s only so much you can do,” he said, after also expressing his support for a different bill that would continue an early education music program.
 
“I’d love to join ... in a discussion of changing that agrarian calendar we go by now and figuring out how we put more hours in the day or look at extending the school year,” agreed Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the committee’s chairman. “I think we have two examples here that are very valuable but it becomes difficult to put in the school day.”

January 31, 2019

DeSantis takes aim at Common Core in executive order

Tampa tech
Gov. Ron DeSantis, appearing at Tampa Bay Technical High on Wednesday, announces plans to invest in Florida workforce programs. He said he wants to take Florida from 24th in the nation to first in workforce preparation. [TAILYR IRVINE | Times]
 
Gov. Ron DeSantis wants to create new state curriculum standards that would eliminate “the vestiges of Common Core,” he announced in Cape Coral on Thursday.
 
“We stuck with Common Core then we re-branded it … it’s all the same. It all needs to be looked at, it all needs to be scrutinized,” DeSantis said during the announcement at Ida S. Baker High School, flanked by commissioner of education Richard Corcoran and local school administrators.
 
DeSantis announced an executive order asking Corcoran to spend a year creating new state curriculum standards, which would then be presented to the Legislature for the 2020 session.
 
It’s true that Florida’s current standards are very similar to Common Core, even though they were tweaked and renamed in 2014. Despite criticisms of Common Core being a federal mandate, those curriculum standards were developed by private nonprofit groups and state education departments and then adopted by 45 states. Local districts then altered their lesson plans to meet those standards.
 
But DeSantis said Common Core inspired concerns by parents who felt they were “imposed federally.”
 
“Also, you would have situations where the parents did not like some of the curriculum, I mean they had trouble even doing basic math to help their kids,” he said. “With Common Core a lot of people just didn’t feel like anyone was listening to them and I think that’s a big, big problem.”
 
DeSantis also said the new standards, which Corcoran will work to craft as long as the state Board of Education is also in agreement, should make civics education even more of a “central part” of what students learn so they can “discharge the duties of citizenship." Civics education and learning the Constitution was one of DeSantis' common refrains on the campaign trail, even though students are already required to learn the Constitution.
 
This was DeSantis' second education policy announcement in two days, after he made a stop in Tampa on Wednesday to propose beefing up Florida’s vocational training programs.

January 22, 2019

Gualtieri to lawmakers: schools need more armed staff, punish districts that move too slow

Gualtieri
Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri chaired the commission that investigated the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. [Tampa Bay Times]
When Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri stood up to give his presentation to the House Education committee on Tuesday, he had harsh words for school districts whom he said are “not moving fast enough” and are “playing games” with SB 7026, the law passed last year in response to the Parkland shooting that mandated sweeping school safety requirements, including requiring an armed guard on every campus.
 
“The Legislature did a Herculean thing in a short amount of time,” Gualtieri said. “I think to some degree (the Department of Education) talked about how things are being done and being done well. Well guess what? They’re not.”
 
Gualtieri chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, which was created by the new law to study the Parkland shooting and issue recommendations to the Legislature aimed and preventing future school shootings, after 17 students and staff were killed in Parkland last February. In that role, he followed a presentation by Brooks Rumenik, deputy director of the state Office of Safe Schools, who updated lawmakers on the progress of schools' compliance with SB 7026. Gualtieri made a similar presentation in the Senate Education Committee a few hours later.
 
He raked school districts over the coals, enumerating what he said was: “no sense of urgency” by districts to train teachers on how to respond to active shooter situations, that staff is not taking advantage of behavioral threat assessments to identify troubled students, schools are slow to submit reports on their emergency readiness and that districts are dragging their feet to train and arm school staff to increase the presence of armed guards on campus.
 
As part of the commissions' recommendations, Gualtieri said districts need to further implement the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian program, which trains school employees who aren’t primarily classroom teachers to undergo training and carry guns. Gualtieri said only two districts so far have armed existing school staff such as coaches and administrators, while 23 others, including Pinellas, have hired new school employees whose sole responsibility is to be on-campus security.
 
Gualtieri said widespread use of the guardian program would mitigate the shortages of deputies that currently exists in Florida’s law enforcement, which is caused in part by the strong economy resulting in fewer applicants. Sworn law enforcement, called school resource officers, are also much more expensive than school guardians.
 
Other districts have chosen to use only school resource officers, but Rumenik said that some districts are using one officer for multiple campuses, while other schools have said they would like to train staff through the program but the sheriff’s offices are declining to participate. Under current law, both the school board and the sheriff’s office must agree for the guardian program to be offered.
 
“This is not hard: there’s required to be a safe school officer, a good guy with a gun, on every campus,” Gualtieri said. “What we’re recommending is if the school board wants the program and authorizes the program that the sheriff be required to implement it and train."
 
“This isn’t ... ‘arm all the teachers.’ No, I’m not saying that,” he added. “We should do it in a surgical way, a lasered way, a methodical way, a smart way with good selection for people who want to volunteer," emphasizing that teachers who are military veterans, like the athletic director at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School who was killed, are ideal candidates.
 
Gualtieri also said a major problem with implementation of SB 7026 is a lack of teeth in the law. He recommended that the state Department of Education be given greater authority to punish districts with financial penalties, or even the ability to remove school officials from office if they don’t comply, had a meeting scheduled with Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran later on Tuesday to discuss this.
 
Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said he is “alarmed” that there are so many issues with district compliance, almost a year after the Parkland shooting happened. He added that while the creation of the guardian program last year was a heated affair, he thinks the political climate has changed.
 
“I think the temperature has dropped on that,” Diaz said. “Everybody realizes that the most important thing is to keep kids safe.”
 
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, who serves on the commission with Gualtieri, said there needs to be a holistic approach to tweaking the law passed last year, and she’s approaching any Legislative expansion of the guardian program with caution.
 
“I think we need to expand the Baker Act — I don’t know if, as a commission, we’ve looked at mental health pieces enough or some of our ability to seize weapons that need to be seized ... or some of the gun control measures that we should be looking at,” she said. But when it comes to the districts, especially in Broward County, “clearly people aren’t paying attention. People aren’t doing what they need to do.”
 
Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, who chairs the House Education Committee, said the Legislature is open to all the commission’s suggestions and said they will be taking a “balanced approach” when it comes to further arming school staff.

January 16, 2019

State Board of Education eyes changes to school safety law, bullying scholarship

Richard Corcoran, Commissioner of Education and former Florida House Speaker
The State Board of Education had its first and only meeting before the Legislative session begins in March and the board members indicated that they hope lawmakers revisit some of the most heated issues in education.
 
School safety was constantly mentioned as a top priority for this year, by all members but especially by Andrew Pollack, the father of Meadow Pollack who was killed in last year’s shooting in Parkland. Wednesday marked Pollack’s first meeting as a member of the state board since he was appointed by former Gov. Rick Scott as one of Scott’s final actions.
 
Since the shooting, Pollack has risen to prominence in his calls for greater accountability in Broward County, and he made clear that his tenure as a board member would have the same theme.
 
“A lot of these districts have bureaucrats and they don’t know what the word ‘urgency’ means," he said, before suggesting there should be strong penalties for schools that don’t comply with last year’s school safety law. “There’s no accountability for not putting our kids' safety first.”
 
Board member Michael Olenick said the Legislature should consider increasing funding for both armed school security and for increased mental health programs in schools. Both those elements were crucial pieces of last year’s SB 7026, the monumental law that was passed following the Parkland shooting which requires all public schools to have armed protection, either through law enforcement officers or trained school staff.
 
“We all have the same goal but it’s individual ways we achieve that goal that has to be looked at,” he said, adding that districts should be allowed greater “flexibility” with how they use the guardian program to arm school staff.
 
Olenick also said the Legislature must address Florida’s growing teacher shortage, as well as consider adjustments to requirements for school building construction, which he said are antiquated and make erecting new buildings too expensive.
 
Richard Corcoran, who attended the meeting in Pensacola for the first time as Commissioner of Education, said he’s certain that Gov. Ron DeSantis is also going to advocate for those same ideas.
 
“Whether its increasing mental health funding, finding a way to improve upon teacher recruitment and retention, school security and ways to work with the districts in creating easier pathways and on school construction ... they’re front and center on his agenda,” he said. “We’re going to move forward on all four of those in a very dramatic way.”
 
There was much anticipation in the education world surrounding Corcoran’s first meeting, as many looked to see whether his reputation as an aggressive House Speaker and political arm-wrestler would follow him into his new position. But he did not speak at great length at any point during the meeting, other than to follow agenda items where he made a presentation to the board on failing schools seeking approval for a second year of district-managed turnaround. During that portion, he successfully recommended that two schools to be denied, including North Side Elementary School in Broward County, which had slipped from a D to an F in its first year of its turnaround program.
 
“Obviously we’re dealing with people who even with the (state turnaround) criteria, can’t figure it out," he quipped.
 
He also harkened back to a major piece of legislation that he championed last year: the Hope Scholarships, which are offered to students who said they’ve been bullied so they can attend another public or private school. During the meeting, Step Up for Students Chief Financial Officer Joe Pfountz said that only 60 students have so far been approved for that scholarship, citing a lack of public awareness and troubles getting correct documentation about the reported bullying incidents.
 
Corcoran assured the board that there are changes in the works, and said that the remaining funds collected for that scholarship could be directed to students on the waiting list for other scholarships administered through Step Up. He said the bullying scholarships are anticipated to generate $46 million, which it won’t “come close” to spending. The money is raised by Floridians checking a box when they buy a car to redirect $105 of their state sales tax to Step Up for Students for this program.
 
“Every program, when it comes online, there’s always a slow ramp-up," Corcoran said. “It’s a laborious application process that needs to be fixed. I think the Legislature is going to go in and tweak the application process to streamline it.”

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

Donalds
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.