Today's news -- April 24, 2017





House Bill 11 challenges, targets teacher unions *

Teacher unions in Florida are warily tracking a bill with union-busting potential through Florida Legislature and crossing fingers the proposal fizzles in the Senate. Initiated by Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, House Bill 11 would require public sectors -- excluding those of law enforcement, prison guards and firefighters -- to report annual membership counts as well as the amount of members paying dues. Unions with less than 50 percent of represented members paying dues would be decertified. Michelle Dillon, president of the St. Johns Education Association, said the legislation is nothing more than a political jab targeting the education sector. “I believe it’s a divide-and-conquer tactic because they’ve carved out police, firefighters and correctional officers from this bill,” she said “Their job is important, but so is a teacher’s. Why are they excluded?” HB 11 glided through the House last month with a 75-41 vote, but its Senate twin, SB 1292, hasn’t garnered much of a spotlight. Dillon is still apprehensive. Her union is just shy of the 50 percent mark by .37 percent. Should the bill pass, the organization will have to re-establish itself from scratch. “We’d be right back at square one,” she said. Mark Pudlow, a spokesperson for the Florida Education Association, said the bill pointlessly discriminates against teacher unions, which represent 140,000 voluntary members. “It’s really a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist in this state,” he said. “This is a right-to-work state. Nobody is compelled to join a union.” Supporters of HB 11 tout its demand for transparency, but Dillon and Pudlow think the reasoning runs deeper. “There’s always going to be someone who wants to push back at us because we’re strong and powerful,” Dillon said. “We stand together. When you’re doing something that has power, other people want to take that away.” Although legislative bargaining sessions are in final throes, Pudlow said the FEA hasn’t dismissed HB 11 as a threat. There’s always the chance, he said, the proposal will resurrect in future sessions. “We’re always concerned when we see things like this that are directed at our union, they will probably pop up again,” he said. “At this point in time, until the legislation is gaveled to a close, we consider it something that could surface again.” Tim Forson, superintendent of the St. Johns County School District, said the union has acted as the authorized voice of teachers. Together, the district and union coordinate throughout the school year to address concerns and exchange ideas. It’s not always sunshine and butterflies, but he said overall, the two sides play nice. “There have been points and times we’ve disagreed on specific issues, but the relationship in St. Johns County between the school district and the teacher union has been a very good one. A healthy one,” Forson said. In recent years, the state has burdened school districts with more budget cuts, teaching requirements and testing demands. These are the pressures districts and unions have to face together. “I think what’s occurred in recent years is districts and unions having to work through statutory changes that are impactful to teachers and to school districts,” Forson said. Dillon said she’s expressed her concerns about HB 11 to Forson, but trusts his judgment. She’s not going to hit the panic button just yet, but she’s not afraid to share her thoughts on the proposal. “It’s a union-busting bill,” she said. “I have no problem saying that.”


Charter giveaway is one more gimmick set up to fail *

Competing education plans are about to collide in Tallahassee. If you're inclined to skip over a bunch of the details, the basic difference is this: The Senate is looking for a solution to Florida's persistent education gap, and the House is looking for an excuse to create more charter schools. And hanging in the balance? Only tens of thousands of kids. This is how life works in Tallahassee, where ideology often comes before common sense. And in this case, the House's ideology is a long-standing mission to turn education over to private interests. Everyone agrees education in lower-income neighborhoods is a problem. An elusive and cruel problem. Some communities have handled it better than others, but most agree there is no simple switch to flip. And yet the House is billing its "schools of hope'' plan in just that way. Essentially, House leaders want to create a fund of $200 million to attract qualified charter school operators to skydive into low-income communities and compete with struggling public schools.  Lawmakers say public schools have had ample opportunity to correct the problem, and now it's time to let charters have a chance with their innovative ideas. This would be a fine plan except for a few crucial facts:

• Charter schools in Florida have roughly the same success rate as traditional schools.

• The "qualified" charters the House seeks are very picky about where they go.

• Traditional schools don't get the chance to be innovative because the Legislature has burdened them with too many top-down edicts and regulations.

That last fact may be the most important of all. Florida has spent the last 20 years operating under the banner of Jeb Bush's school reforms, and the education gap remains stubbornly wide. Or here's another way of saying it: They created the circumstances, and now they are criticizing the results. I don't say that flippantly. In 1998, Bush was selling his accountability plan, with A-F school grades, high-stakes standardized tests, bonus revenues and school choice, as the solution to the education gap. "Any fair and objective analysis of the comprehensive components of our A+Plan would reveal that it is designed to destroy the institutionalization of lower expectations for children based on their socioeconomic status,'' Bush wrote to the Times in 1999. "To permit the continued institutionalization of these lower expectations would inevitably and tragically lead to the 'Two Floridas' of which I warned in my State of the State address.'' And yet here we are in 2017 with lawmakers lamenting the problem of disparate educational opportunities. I'm not criticizing Bush's attempt to find a solution here. I'm just suggesting it's hypocritical of the House to blame traditional schools for carrying out Tallahassee's own policy demands. It's time Tallahassee took responsibility for Florida's education gap. State leaders have been following the same script for two decades. They've set the policies, they've doled out the insufficient funds. If they're not happy with the results, they might want to look at themselves as the cause. (Rich Templin quoted)

Millions spent on schools with almost no accountability *

Florida is on track this year to spend nearly $35 million educating disabled kids in private, mostly religious schools in Central Florida 00 without bothering to check how the money is spent. Just dump cash from the McKay Scholarship program into the bank accounts of the schools and hope for the best -- that’s pretty much all the law requires. Florida Department of Education officials said the state can do a financial audit if some savvy parent complains that autistic little Ricardo isn’t getting the extra help he should, but otherwise the schools can carry on as they please. Statewide, about $235 million in taxpayer dollars is disappearing into what seems like a bunch of tiny, bush-league religious schools that don’t even have to hire teachers with a college education, let alone those certified to teach disabled kids. The McKay scholarships allow special needs students to attend whatever private schools their parents choose. Take, for example, Iglesia Bautista Central de Kissimmee, which will collect about $1.4 million this school year for educating 196 disabled children. A peep at the student handbook of the single largest McKay recipient in Central Florida makes the school’s purpose crystal clear: “IBCK Educational Center is a Christ-centered mission school whose sole purpose is to equip all students of the community in the ways of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Teachers must “have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ” and have the “ability to integrate Biblical truth in their academic subject.” Students can be expelled if they live in a home where there is “sexual immorality, homosexual orientation, drug/alcohol use, or inability to support the moral principles of the IBCK Educational Center.” Hey, it’s what Jesus would do, right? Those who want to give their kids a religious or private education using tax dollars have been a powerful force in recent years -- spending on McKay students has risen 60 percent since 2010 when the state shelled out $148.6 million. With the appointment of private school and charter advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. secretary of education, count on more public tax dollars being diverted to schools with almost no financial accountability. State rules don’t require an audit of the McKay money, although schools that get more than $250,000 a year must file a report stating how they used the money and describing their financial controls. Audits may be done if there is a complaint, and 12 of the 1,359 schools taking the money were cut off last year for fraud. A 13th is appealing to get back on the gravy train. The lack of direct financial oversight can lead to trouble. In January, the principal at Family Christian Center School in Clermont resigned after she learned that the accounts of some students attending on McKay Scholarships had been drained, supposedly to pay for personal assistants to help them in the classroom. The school never hired such assistants, the principal stated. The church and its senior pastor Rick VanWagner sued former Principal Mercy Nyman for talking about it, and the case is continuing. Through February this year, the church collected more than $475,000 of McKay money, but Nyman said she wasn’t allowed to spend it on the children with special needs and doesn’t know where it went. VanWagner said Friday that the state had closed the inquiry without taking action. DOE officials released a copy of a letter they sent to Nyman, confirming that they found “no violations.” The letter failed to state what the agency did, if anything, in the way of an investigation. However, the letter droned on for an entire typewritten page explaining why the DOE has almost no power over such schools. This increasing, reckless waste of taxpayer dollars must stop. At the very least, schools that get millions in public money should be required to submit audits -- real ones done by certified public accountants, not the congregation’s volunteer bookkeeper. The Legislature needs to make a change now, before even more cash begins flowing to even more questionable schools.


Too many tests: Florida can earn an A with reform *

It can be maddening to watch the Florida Legislature waste so much time and energy bickering over issues like the sliver of the state budget dedicated to economic development when more fundamental and far-reaching concerns deserve more attention. But legislators, to their credit, are on the verge of taking action on a problem that has been festering for years: a glut of standardized testing in public schools. Testing has been a cornerstone in Florida’s system of holding students, teachers and schools accountable for results. It has helped drive improvements in academic performance, especially for minority and low-income students. It’s an essential tool for gauging how students compare with their counterparts in other states and other countries. But students, parents, teachers and administrators have long complained about the sheer number of tests -- 3.6 million statewide last year -- and the hours in the classroom that are dedicated to preparing for them and taking them. Seminole County Superintendent Walt Griffin succinctly summed up the problem earlier this year: “We are spending way too much time testing.” This year the school testing window began in late February and ends in mid-May -- a schedule that forces cramming in the middle of the school year, then leaves what many teachers consider “dead time” between the last test and the end of the year. Students in third grade through high school take the language arts and math exams that make up the Florida Standards Assessments, and many also take standardized science and social studies tests. Most tests are taken online, which takes schools weeks longer to administer because computers are limited. Test results are often delayed, depriving teachers of beneficial information they could use to adjust their lesson plans. Parents get frustrated by scores they often find difficult to interpret. A Senate bill that cleared its final committee hurdle this past week would address these problems without abandoning testing and accountability. It has been widely backed by school superintendents, school board members, teachers and parent advocacy groups. The bill would push language arts and math exams to the last three weeks of the school year. It would require results on district tests to be delivered within a week to teachers. It would require the scores on statewide tests to be provided to both teachers and parents in “an easy-to-read and understandable format.” The Senate bill also would pare back the number of tests by eliminating some end-of-course exams. It would allow students who do well enough on national tests to forgo some state exams. It would call for a study of replacing statewide tests with national exams. And it would give districts the flexibility they deserve to choose between computer and paper-and-pencil testing. A testing bill moving through the House began as less ambitious. It moved the testing window and called for studying the possibility of using national exams, but didn’t drop any tests. However, it was amended last week in committee to incorporate more of the Senate bill’s provisions. There is now enough overlap between the two chambers to expect them to agree to a compromise that will become law. Florida schools would be better off if legislators end up closer to the Senate’s position. There is a risk, however, that unrelated and contentious provisions added in committee to the Senate bill could throw a wrench into negotiations between the two chambers. Legislators would be foolish to let those issues prevent an overdue overhaul of the state’s testing system.


Overhaul Florida's standardized testing ASAP (Pam Miller and Vicki Rodriguez quoted)


34 problems with standardized tests


Will Broward teachers get a 5.5 percent raise? (Anna Fusco quoted)


Sides closer to contract agreement in Pasco schools, union rep says (Jim Ciadella quoted)


Last day to get Brevard teachers union election absentee ballots (Dan Bennett, Loren Merrill, FEA and NEA mentioned)


Valencia, Osceola schools team up to train more teachers


Tallahassee needs Community Partnership schools


Principal: White students at Pinellas elementary “should be in the same class”


House makes it more difficult for school boards, teachers

It’s a good thing the Florida House of Representatives wasn’t in session when Columbus wanted to sail the ocean blue. Lawmakers would have passed a bill prohibiting the trip because science hadn’t yet proven that the earth was round. Oh, there were those crackpots who said it was, but the representatives of the day would have known better than to let those poor sailors would right off the edge of the flat planet into oblivion. Alas, the House is in session now and voted 94-25 Thursday in favor of a bill that has been called a science denier’s dream. HB 989 has been pitched as a way for parents to challenge those terrible things in their children’s textbooks, like, you know – reality. The language of the bill requires that textbooks “be research-based and proven to be effective” along with being “accurate and factual.” It allows residents – not just parents of school kids – to challenge what is being taught in public classrooms. What’s wrong with that? That depends whether you embrace fact-based facts or, as someone once said, alternative facts. And that’s the landmine in this bill. Supporters of the bill, introduced by Rep. Byron Donalds, a Naples Republican, say this will make it easier for parents to weed out objectionable material. They say local school boards will still have the final say over what textbooks are used. However, you can expect those boards to spend time dealing with issues like the one reported by the Orlando Sentinel. It told of an affidavit filed by Lynda Daniel of Martin County, who was peeved about a textbook used in an Advanced Placement course. She wrote that she was opposed to: “Presentation of evolution as fact. … The vast majority of Americans believe that the world and the beings living on it were created by God as revealed in the Bible.” Actually, a 2014 poll by Pew Research said that 65 percent of Americans believe in evolution, although 24 percent of that number believe it was guided by a supreme being. But what’s a fact among friends, right? Since this bill would widen the pool of potential objectors to what is being taught, how long until someone shows up demanding that the Civil War be henceforth called The War of Northern Aggression? How long until they try to force teachers to say it wasn’t about slavery, when all anyone has to do is look at the various articles of secession by Southern states to prove that it was? Literature could become an endangered species. I mean, Romeo and Juliet promoted teen suicide and defiance of parents, didn’t it? And forget about presenting Muslims as human beings entitled to the freedom of religion guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Supporters of this bill will tell you none of that will happen. They say this is legitimate oversight. All I know is, life is about to get more difficult for public school teachers, administrators and board members. That’s a fact.


Why high school exit exams are a waste of time


Minority teachers doubled in 25 years -- but still fewer than 20 percent


Unfortunate goal of school choice movement


How school choice turns education into a commodity


How Jeb Bush and his foundation profited their corporate sponsors


The not-so-secret agenda of the charter industry


We’re teaching our students not to care about democracy


Robotics students were taunted “to go back to Mexico,” but it fueled their success


Welcome to the world’s coolest kindergarten


North Carolina's long summer vacations are being challenged


Flawed case used against foundations


FAMU sees nearly 40 percent increase in freshmen accepted for summer, fall


Saunders inaugurated as UWF president


Seminole State tone-deaf about president's contract


Polk State’s search committee trims list of presidential candidates to 9


DeVos is quietly deconstructing Obama’s student loan reforms


Controversial pension change surfaces in Senate *

With two weeks remaining in the legislative session, a Senate committee will take up a new bill that could move more public workers into a 401(k)-type retirement plan rather than the traditional pension program. The Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee is scheduled today to take up a proposed bill (SPB 7030) that would move public employees, ranging from school-district workers to university personnel, who are hired after Jan. 1 into the investment plan if they do not actively opt for the traditional pension coverage. Currently, newly hired school workers, county employees, college workers and state employees "default" into the traditional pension plan if they don't opt for either plan within six months of their hiring. Only 22 percent of the new public employees opted for the investment plan in the last fiscal year, according to the State Board of Administration. Workers defaulting into the investment plan is a major issue for House leaders, who have pushed similar provisions for the last half-dozen years. The issue is already part of the formal budget negotiations between the House and Senate, although the Senate had backed only a bill (SB 7022) adjusting pension contribution rates for public agencies, while the House supported legislation (HB 5007) with the investment-plan default. Rich Templin, a lobbyist for the Florida AFL-CIO, which opposes the proposed change, said the emergence of the new Senate bill with the House provision is an indication it is a part of the budget negotiations between the House and Senate in the final weeks of the annual session. "We're looking at it as a major threat," Templin said. "The deal-making that happens on the fourth floor of each chamber (where the Senate president and House speaker reside), we're not privy to, nobody in Florida is privy to, except for the people in the room unfortunately." Templin said it was "troubling that such a major policy change is going to largely be left up to the (budget) conference process." Senate Governmental Oversight and Accountability Chairman Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, acknowledged the new pension bill is a "template" for negotiations on the issue with the House. He also said his committee will take up another bill (HB 7007) today that would revamp health-insurance coverage for state workers and is another House priority. But Baxley called the pension bill "a work in progress," with the idea that the pension and health-care legislation will move to the Senate Appropriations Committee for further negotiations. "I have no preconceived idea that this is anywhere near the finished product," Baxley said. "I think it's important we get this up and into the process." Advocates for the workers say the change is unnecessary for the $150 billion fund, which is considered one of the financially healthiest public pension systems in the country with the ability to pay more than 85 percent of its future obligations. "There is no reason to make this change in the (pension plan) default. It is purely ideologically driven by those who do not believe in public pensions," Templin said. "It's an attack on retirement security for the public sector. There no way around it, no way to spin it."


Talks stall as Senate blasts “continuation budget” offer

Negotiations between the Florida House and Senate on a state budget are at a stalemate after the House on Sunday proposed a "continuation budget" for the fiscal year that begins July 1, meaning that current spending levels would remain flat with no cuts, no new initiatives and no hometown projects for legislators. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, made his offer in response to what he said was a liberal, free-spending Senate obsessed with higher spending and a lack of respect for the House. Corcoran viewed that as a serious offer, in part because it would ensure current spending levels for Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida for another 12 months. But Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, didn't take it seriously. "That's not an offer. That's the equivalent of packing your suitcase and moving out," Negron told the Times/Herald. "It's a reflexive and lazy response to our responsibility for budgeting." Negron's chief budget-writer, Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said: "We laughed and went home." Corcoran referred to Negron and Latvala as "Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders" for their approach to budgeting, and Latvala in particular bristled at being labeled a liberal Democrat by the Republican speaker. "If we're being liberal wanting to restore the personal needs allowance that people on Medicaid get, then so be it," Latvala said, referring to a proposed House cut, from $105 a month to $70, for elderly Floridians to pay for haircuts and other personal needs. Corcoran said: "We're dealing with a very, very liberal Jack and Joe. It's Bernie Sanders and it's Nancy Pelosi and there's not a conservative bone in their bodies." At the end of last week, Negron and Corcoran said negotiations were proceeding smoothly, and both leaders sounded hopeful about striking a deal. But House leaders claimed senators opened up a series of new issues Saturday, including money for farmworkers and a program to help firefighters who are presumed to have contracted cancer. The House also said senators insisted the budget must have seven dollars for Senate member projects to every dollar for House projects. Corcoran said senators have shown no interest in fiscal prudence in the "out" years of 2019 and 2020 when economic forecasts show larger projected deficits if the state doesn't rein in its spending. "That's a no go for the House," Corcoran said. Legislative leaders have said that a joint House-Senate conference committee would have to begin its work by Monday for the session to end on time on Friday, May 5. House leaders are already talking about proposing a one-week extension, making May 12 the new projected Sine Die date.


Negron: Education toughest issue for lawmakers

A stalemate between the Senate and the House over allowing property taxes to pay for education will be the toughest issue to resolve before lawmakers agree on a state budget, the Senate’s top leader said Friday. Senate President Joe Negron plans to allow property taxes to rise with increasing land value, but Speaker Richard Corcoran said doing so is a tax increase he refuses to accept. Instead, the House budget includes $539 million to continue a freeze on property tax revenue that helps support public school spending. Last year, the Legislature included $400 million in the K-12 budget to freeze the property tax. Corcoran had said not continuing the freeze this year constitutes a tax increase. But Negron said he and Corcoran will need to reach a compromise. Not doing so by May 5 would push the Legislature into a special session. “That’s an issue where there’s a significant difference between the House and the Senate and it’s a $500 million issue,” Negron said. “That’s where that will take some negotiation and principled compromise on both sides to be able to resolve that one.” Negron sat down with the Tallahassee Democrat’s editorial board, where he discussed his vision for the state and his differences with Corcoran. Education is just one of the outstanding issues between the two Republicans. They also haven’t agreed on Negron’s proposed reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges — a demand from his Treasure Coast constituents — or Corcoran’s plan to inject $200 million to encourage charters schools to set up near struggling traditional schools. The Senate has proposed additional resources to those traditional schools to provide more services, such as after-school programs. With reference to charter schools, Negron said he supports “parental choice.” When asked if the Legislature could pay for the Senate and House proposals, he said that depends on how much is available when lawmakers enter budget negotiations.


Despite optimistic talk in Legislature, little consensus on budget


What’s shaping brawl over Florida budget? The 2018 elections


Scott’s $100-million bid for Visit Florida misses the mark


Site selectors issue warning to state economy if Enterprise Florida is cut


Artiles resigns, says he needs time for personal reflection, growth


Hooters “calendar girl” and Playboy “Miss Social” were paid consultants


How Artiles went from defiance to resignation: Four days at the Capitol


Was Artiles a bigot? Or just a very stupid bully boy?


It’s time to call out the racism in Florida politics


Replacing Artiles: Who's in and who's out (so far) (FEA mentioned) (FEA mentioned)


Gibson deals with being center of attention after Artiles tirade


As Artiles lost support, Galvano helped broker resignation


No term limits for judges


House health care policies stall in the Senate


Florida prison health contract scrapped for second time in two years


Ethics Commission clears Bondi over Trump contribution


Fresen plans to plead guilty for failing to file tax return on $270,000


Proving a state ethics violation no easy task


Florida ethics panel pushes back against legislative oversight


Senate bill protecting contractors would reduce local rule


Poll: A record number of Americans say government “should do more”


Trump saved Carrier jobs. These workers weren’t as lucky.


Disney, the Gap and Pepsi urged to quit U.S. Chamber of Commerce


Sources: Russia tried to use Trump advisers to infiltrate campaign


Former acting attorney general to testify in Congress about Russia


It’s time for the left to take questions about Russia, Trump and hacking seriously


It’s not “McCarthyism” to demand answers on Trump, Russia and the election


How the Kremlin uses Russia’s criminal networks in Europe


Comey tried to shield the FBI from politics. Then he shaped an election.


Treasury secretary: The tax cut “will pay for itself” (voodoo economics returns!)


Zombies of voodoo economics


Trump vows to unveil tax-cut plan this week, surprising staff


White House officials offer conflicting details of Trump tax plan


Trump order takes aim at tax regulations imposed by Obama


Trump's industry, real estate, poses hurdle to tax overhaul


House GOP leaders won’t rush health care vote


How Trump and the GOP are plotting to give big insurers exactly what they want


Ryan promises to keep government open -- and makes no promises on health care


Trump push for border wall threatens to cause government shutdown


Mulvaney downplays chances of government shutdown


Rubio says shutdown would have "destabilizing" impact on global affairs


Republicans agree on no shutdown, but not on how to avoid one


Will the government be open in a week? Here are the dividing lines.


Trump's immigration restrictions will have an enormous economic cost


Fearing a worker shortage, farmers push back on immigration


Sanctuary cities face aid cuts as Justice Department tightens screws


Trump warns Miami-Dade on sanctuaries. County: We’re in full compliance.


Tens of thousands of Haitians could be sent back if Trump agency has its way


Trump aides struggle to clarify policy on “dreamers” and deportation


The first brick hasn’t been set, and Trump’s wall is already going south on him


Sessions’ aloha-baiting could bring attention to the real problem


The Trump administration continues to have a warped view of crime in big cities


Trump's 25 executive orders in 100 days: more cosmetic than substantive


Trump to sign executive orders on drilling, cybersecurity and a rural America


March for Science puts Earth Day focus on global opposition to Trump

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