Today's news -- April 25, 2017





Corcoran's schools of false hope *

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to spend big money to move struggling students from Failure Factories to Schools of Hope. That's a slick pitch, but it would further starve traditional public schools to finance privately run charter schools that often are no better at teaching kids in poor neighborhoods. This is another power play by conservative Republicans to dismantle public education, not to help children succeed. The Schools of Hope legislation (HB 5105) has passed the House and is a top priority for Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican whose wife founded a Pasco County charter school their children attend. The goal is to attract nonprofits that operate successful charter schools elsewhere to open schools in impoverished Florida neighborhoods where traditional public schools have been failing. To get their attention, the House would give the charters the sun and the moon: $200 million to finance buildings with low-interest loans, cover operations and other costs -- plus more flexibility to operate with little or no input from local school districts. Even that may not be enough. Some charters say their business models are not based on quickly turning around failing schools. Or they could not immediately accommodate every student. Or they are wary of being viewed as unwelcome outsiders. Those warning flags should make the Senate pause, yet Corcoran declares: "They're all going to come.'' The arguments for this giveaway don't hold up. Republicans contend students need more choices. But Florida already is a national leader in school choice, from magnets to fundamental schools to charters to Opportunity Scholarships for low-income students at private schools. A new state law also allows students to move across county lines to attend any public school that has room. Republicans also argue that improving struggling schools is not about spending more money. That is untested in Florida, where state legislators ignore "the paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children'' as the Florida Constitution requires. The state ranks near the bottom nationally in per-student spending, uses revenue from the state lottery to supplant rather than enhance education spending and fails to adequately invest in pre-K programs. Legislators also have steered construction and maintenance money away from traditional public schools and toward privately run charters. Now they want to require a portion of local property tax money for public school construction to be handed to charter schools, without raising the tax rate back to where it was before the recession. Corcoran doesn't even want local school districts to get new money generated by rising property values this year, calling that a tax increase. Hillsborough County School District chair Cindy Stuart: "They have starved us to a place where that's all they can do is give up on us.'' The Legislature would be smarter to invest $200 million in lifting families out of poverty and adding resources to their public schools than in the House speaker's schools of false hope.


Lawmakers produce huge bill, including testing reform *

Lawmakers in the Florida House took a priority proposal aimed at reforming the standardized testing schedule in K-12 public schools and transformed it Monday into a broader education policy bill — a move intended to set up negotiations with the Senate before the scheduled end of the 2017 session on May 5. Members of the House Education Committee voted to expand HB 773 through a 76-page amendment — filed late Sunday by bill sponsor Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. The amendment replaces the bill so it incorporates language not only from Diaz’s original measure but also from about seven other education bills lawmakers have considered to varying degrees. Such a strategic move is typical at this point in session but often draws criticism over a lack of transparency. Individual policy bills that stalled in committee can find new life through omnibus bills lawmakers create by attaching those smaller proposals on to a single, expanded bill that’s still on track to reach the floor. Senators last week similarly expanded their testing proposal (SB 926), although the tangential education policies being added to each chamber’s testing bill don’t yet align. For instance, the initial expansion of SB 926 wasn’t nearly as wide-ranging as what the House committee approved of Monday. And one key difference in the Senate’s language involves a popular proposal that the House has resisted this session to the frustration of parents: daily school recess. Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores added the language from the Senate-approved recess bill into her testing bill as a way to force the House to eventually consider the issue. Diaz’s expansion to his testing bill did not include the recess language, but he said that policy could be a factor later on once the chambers try to find compromise on a final bill. How those negotiations might go down hinges first on the House and Senate bills each passing a floor vote in their respective chambers, which is expected and could happen as soon as this week. But complex and divisive negotiations on the annual state budget could put a wrinkle in what happens next. Those talks, as of midday Monday, were at a stalemate, which could potentially put negotiations on policy bills at risk, too, in the remaining days. The education proposals Diaz added to his testing bill span an array of issues, from teacher certification and bonuses to reading instruction and virtual learning. A couple of the original standalone bills those came from have passed the House floor already, while others were considered and approved only by a single committee.

The omnibus bill received bipartisan praise, although several Democrats said they prefer the Senate’s testing bill and want to see the House version go farther. “Everything in the bill is not something that I like, but I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, so I think I’ll hop on the ‘train,’ ” Broward County Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones, of West Park, said. (A “train” is the term lawmakers have for late-session omnibus bills.) Diaz’s bill earned only one “no” vote in the Education Committee from Ocoee Democratic Rep. Kamia Brown. Diaz last week began moving toward compromise with the Senate’s testing proposal, which became much more comprehensive after Flores absorbed in her bill bipartisan, popular ideas originally only in a Democratic senator’s bill. (The original versions of Diaz’s and Flores’ testing bills dealt mostly with reducing the testing window but actually did nothing to eliminate standardized tests, despite being billed as the “Fewer, Better Tests” legislation.) The latest iteration of Diaz’s proposal now includes eliminating one exam — the Algebra II end-of-course test — and it also factors in a measure important to the Senate: allowing at least some grades to use pencil-and-paper exams, rather than mandating only computerized assessments for all grades. The amendment the House Education Committee approved includes a $19.3 million appropriation to pay for all of the changes proposed in the broader bill, such as the testing reforms. House members have said letting schools use the pencil-and-paper option, in particular, would come at a cost. Diaz’s revised bill also proposes a more staggered way to limit the schedule for statewide standardized assessments, which currently are administered over a span of several months at the end of the school year. Under his amendment, starting in 2018-19, the third grade English Language Arts assessment and the writing portion of that exam for grades 4-10 would be limited to a two-week testing window no earlier than April 1. Any paper-based exams would also have to be administered within a two-week window no earlier than May 1. All other statewide assessments would have to be given within the last four weeks of the school year, no sooner than May 1.


'The House is prepared to walk away,' Diaz says *

If House Republicans follow through this week on plans to vote on a budget for 2017-18 that simply mirrors this year's, they will have to scrap a slew of top education priorities they had sought this year and worked for months to craft -- including their $200 million "schools of hope" plan to provide incentives for specialized, high-performing charter schools to set up in predominantly low-income areas. "Our responsibility, constitutionally, is to pass a budget, so if it means that's what we have to do and walk away, then that's what we have to do," House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told the Herald/Times mid-afternoon on Monday. "We come back next session -- which, September starts committee [weeks] -- and we go back at it again." The House's backroom offer over the weekend of what its calling a "continuation budget" was rebuffed by Senate leaders, leaving the two chambers deadlocked. The House isn't backing down, though. Diaz said the plan is: "We're going to take last year's budget and put it on the floor and pass it, which means it's a take-it-or-leave-it offer -- which means there's no conference [negotiations]. That means they [the Senate] would have to turn down that bill for us to not have a budget and send us in to special session. That's where we are right now." The status of budget negotiations could change by the hour, but for now, "the House is prepared to walk away with a continuation budget. We're fine with it," Diaz said. "It's a budget that will obviously not include all of these new twists and wrinkles and doesn't address those things that we think are a very high need and emergency needs, as we've said, but at the end of the day, we have to pass a budget." "If that's where we have to go, that's where we have to go. We can't go climbing to the $85 billion that the Senate wants," Diaz added. Diaz said he and his counterpart in the Senate -- Senate pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs -- are still talking privately to find middle ground on key budget issues affecting public schools. But he said their conversations are limited because they don't have budget allocations, a figure of how much money they would have to work with. "It doesn't matter what we talk about because we don't have allocations," Diaz said. "We're talking about concepts and things that are important and how to help these kids in these low-income schools, et cetera, et cetera -- but it's all conceptual."


Two districts, two rulings on annual contract renewals *

As Florida lawmakers debate how flexible school districts may be in awarding teachers annual contracts, some school district leaders are pushing for clarity. They have pointed to two special magistrate opinions on the issue that arrived at differing takes on the 2011 law that did away with continuing contracts for any newly hired teachers. Teachers in St. Johns and Pasco counties went to impasse in contract negotiations over demands that educators who received evaluation ratings of "effective" or better receive guarantees of another year's employment. District officials in each case insisted that the Legislature mandated annual contracts, without strings attached. Magistrate Louis Imundo Jr. ruled in favor of the St. Johns teachers' request. Magistrate Mark Lurie sided with the Pasco County school district against the demand. Each cited the law in his finding. "While it would appear that the legislative intent in enacting the Student Success Act was to bring an end to professional service contracts, such as has not manifested itself in any adverse consequences for those districts that, since July 1, 2011, have negotiated annual contract renewal language in their agreements," Imundo wrote, deeming the concept lawful. He also found the idea useful. "When competent and trusted teachers do not have their annual contracts renewed it undermines morale and creates a climate of fear," he wrote. "Such a work environment adversely affects working relationships and the quality of teaching. The SM strongly recommends that the Union's proposal be adopted." While acknowledging the adverse effects, Lurie took an opposite position. "The answer to the potential abuse of managerial discretion is not to contractually preempt management from exercising that discretion in the first place," he wrote. "The job of management is to manage, and, absent evidence to the contrary, management should be presumed capable of doing so competently. Specifically, the District should be presumed competent to manage the delicate balance between maintaining the optimum composition of the teaching staff while imposing the least disruption on teachers' careers." Such disparate positions have created a degree of confusion. Lawmakers in the state House and Senate have pushed bills to clarify the matter, and not in the teachers unions' direction.


Advance legislation to reform school testing *

It can be maddening to watch the 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. Besides the volume of tests, Broward County school leaders would like end-of-course exams to carry less weight. And for years, Palm Beach County school leaders have complained that test scores are given too much weight in evaluating teachers, and determining whether students are promoted or allowed to graduate. This year much of Florida's 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.


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As talks crash, Corcoran wants “continuation” budget

A bitter stalemate over spending forced the Legislature to suspend work on a budget Monday, stirring more bad blood among Republicans and putting an on-time adjournment in doubt. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, bargained privately by phone through last Friday and were making progress on issues such as public school spending and raises for state workers. But problems began cropping up on the size of a cash reserve, total amounts for hometown spending and other areas, and ugly politics and seething animosity took over. The confrontational Corcoran, saying he's fed up by a "liberal" Senate's insistence on much higher pork barrel spending, said he would offer the Senate a "continuation budget" with current spending frozen in place for the fiscal year starting July 1. "We would prevent an unnecessary government shutdown, protect the state's future, and still enable us to fund new priorities in the future," Corcoran told House members in a memo, abandoning use of the "continuation budget" and rebranding it a "standard operating budget." The House called an emergency budget committee meeting for 8 a.m. today to pass a continuation budget. "It's a take-it-or-leave-it offer," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, a key Corcoran ally. "That's where we are." Corcoran said that Negron and his chief budget-writer, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, in pushing for more spending, were acting like liberal Democrats. "I tell people I'm dealing with Nancy Pelosi and Bernie Sanders," Corcoran said. "There's not a conservative bone in their bodies." Senators were blindsided by the move, rejected it and accused Corcoran of an approach never used by the state but often used by Congress, which is paralyzed by gridlock and held in notoriously low public esteem. Before budget talks began in private more than a week ago, the Senate's $85 billion spending plan was $4 billion more than the House's. Corcoran's talk of a continuation budget puzzled senators because it preserves Enterprise Florida and Visit Florida, which the speaker targeted for extinction as wasteful cases of "corporate welfare." Corcoran's criticism of senators as liberals prompted Latvala to compare him to a past House speaker and of grandstanding to advance his ambitions to be governor. "I call it 'Johnnie Byrd 2.0,' when you say everybody else is a liberal except you," Latvala said. Byrd, of Plant City, was House speaker in 2004 when he faced intense criticism for attacking senators as supposed tax-raisers while using the House as a springboard to run for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. Corcoran has made no secret of his interest in higher office, possibly governor in 2018, and Latvala also has said he may run for governor. Both lawmakers are Republicans. Monday's meltdown recalled the 2015 session when the House, in a budget battle with the Senate on expanding health care, abruptly adjourned and left town, a move orchestrated in part by Corcoran that was subsequently ruled illegal by the Florida Supreme Court.

If the House carries through on a threat to send the Senate a "take it or leave it" budget today, it could trigger a chain reaction and scuttle major policy initiatives, all of which are related to the budget, including:

• A $200 million "Schools of Hope" program to expand charter schools, a House priority.

• A new water reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee to reduce toxic discharges, a Senate priority.

• An across-the-board pay raise for all state workers, a Senate goal.

• A modest boost in per-pupil school spending without requiring higher property taxes, a compromise between the chambers.

• A statewide referendum in 2018 that would ask voters to boost the homestead exemption from $50,000 to $75,000, a top House goal.

Passing a budget is the only act that the Legislature must take each year under the state Constitution. The Constitution also says that meetings between legislative leaders that could result in formal action must be made in public. Private phone conversations between the Legislature's presiding officers on major issues are nothing new, but upon taking office as speaker last November, Corcoran vowed to usher in a new era of transparency in the House. As Corcoran rallied House members to fight the Senate, Negron sent senators a memo, calling a continuation budget "ineffectual" and saying Florida taxpayers deserve better. "I had never encountered this term in state government until it began to appear in these negotiations," Negron wrote. "I understand the concept of a 'continuation budget' to be a Washington creation where Congress is habitually unable to pass a budget and then simply carries forward the current budget … I have no interest in adopting this ineffectual practice." Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, the chief House budget-writer, said he was prepared to propose extending the current budget for another year with two changes: removal of lawmaker-sponsored projects paid for with one-time expenditures and the inclusion of an estimated $1.5 billion in federal and state money to compensate hospitals for charity care, a program known as the low-income pool.  "If we pass this budget, we have $3 billion in reserves. We're fine with that," Trujillo said. "Every single government service will get funded … We're not growing government. I'm not sure the Senate can walk away from their projects."


Pension, health care overhauls advance in Senate *

A Senate committee on Monday narrowly backed a controversial change in the state pension plan and endorsed an overhaul of the health insurance program for state employees. The Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee voted 4-3, along partisan lines, to change the default retirement option for newly hired public employees, including school teachers, county workers and state employees. Under the bill (SPB 7030), new workers who do not actively choose to join the traditional pension plan or a 401(k)-type investment plan will default into the investment plan six months after they are hired. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, chairman of the panel, said the revision does not take away the initial choice for workers to pick the traditional pension plan and that moving employees into the investment plan could help those who do not vest in the pension plan, which requires at least eight years of service to obtain benefits. “No one is taking anything away,” Baxley said. But he also conceded the pension bill as well, as legislation revamping the health-insurance program for state workers, are House-backed priorities that could be part of the two chambers’ final negotiations on a budget. “I mainly want to get this over to (the) Appropriations (Committee) so it can be part of that discussion,” Baxley said about the pension bill. “We might have some different tires and wheels on it before it gets to the floor.” Democrats opposed the bill because of the default option, although the legislation has other provisions, including expanding eligibility benefits for firefighters who develop cancer “in the line of duty.” Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said moving new workers into the investment plan rather than the traditional pension plan would put them financially at risk. “New employees, who do not feel confident or knowledgeable enough to make a (pension plan) selection, should be defaulted to the safest plan, not the most risky plan,” Rouson said. “In fact, it’s risk-shifting.” Rouson’s amendment that would have maintained the traditional pension plan as a default was defeated in a voice vote. Another amendment, which would have increased a public agency’s match in the investment plan for its employees from 3 to 6 percent, was also rejected. The bill’s narrow passage was helped by the appointment of Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, to the panel, replacing Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, who resigned last week. Without Simpson, the legislation would have failed in a tie vote. (Rich Templin quoted)


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Florida judge clears way for Big Cypress oil exploration


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