Today's news -- February 20, 2012




“In 2013, our Legislature will raise the stakes even further with standardized testing in schools. New laws will require students to take more of their classes online to subsidize a school ‘choice’ effort. And with the 2012 elections behind them, Republican politicians will make a coordinated effort to portray teachers as overcompensated underachievers. Our lawmakers will do and say those things in their next session because that’s the education agenda of a corporate-sponsored, members-only national association called the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC calls itself a ‘state legislators’ think tank’ committed to limited government, free markets and federalism. Its primary activity is to draft model legislation that its 2,000 legislative members can copy and introduce verbatim in 50 state capitals. ALEC also has dozens of corporate members that helped write and push bills nationwide on insurance, voting restrictions, prison privatization and what teachers can say about climate change in classrooms. They include Exxon-Mobil, AT&T, State Farm, Koch Industries, Wal-Mart, Pfizer and Kraft Foods. I know ALEC’s agenda for Brevard’s public schools because I just read its 125-page Report Card on American Education, authored by research fellows from conservative think tanks such as the Goldwater Institute. ALEC produced its report in time to fuel discussion among politicians and executives at its closed-door ‘education academy’ on Feb. 2 at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Amelia Island. … The next wave of corporate-sponsored school reforms will include two new planks:

• More “digital learning.” ALEC wants more online courses because they give students more flexibility and choices of classes regardless of where they live. ALEC’s report offers no evidence online classes improve education. But they cost less to deliver.

• New scrutiny of “return on investment.” ALEC wants a better trained workforce, but its members do not want to spend more on public education. To arm Republicans against calls to do that, conservative think tanks have produced studies showing Florida teachers’ total compensation (including benefits) looks good when divided by the number of hours they are contracted to be on campus. … I have no problem with Florida politicians meeting with business leaders or peers from other states to share ideas on ‘best practices.’ But on education, our politicians’ relationship with the American Legislative Exchange Council has resulted in unaccountable, top-down governance crafted by corporate sponsors. The result is education laws rooted in conservative ideology and comic-book portrayals of bad teachers, not reality in our public schools.”
-- Florida Today columnist Matt Reed.


“So what will it take to convince the Pain Caucus, the people on both sides of the Atlantic who insist that we can cut our way to prosperity, that they are wrong? After all, the usual suspects were quick to pronounce the idea of fiscal stimulus dead for all time after President Obama’s efforts failed to produce a quick fall in unemployment -- even though many economists warned in advance that the stimulus was too small. Yet as far as I can tell, austerity is still considered responsible and necessary despite its catastrophic failure in practice. The point is that we could actually do a lot to help our economies simply by reversing the destructive austerity of the last two years. That’s true even in America, which has avoided full-fledged austerity at the federal level but has seen big spending and employment cuts at the state and local level. Remember all the fuss about whether there were enough ‘shovel ready’ projects to make large-scale stimulus feasible? Well, never mind: all the federal government needs to do to give the economy a big boost is provide aid to lower-level governments, allowing these governments to rehire the hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers they have laid off and restart the building and maintenance projects they have canceled. Look, I understand why influential people are reluctant to admit that policy ideas they thought reflected deep wisdom actually amounted to utter, destructive folly. But it’s time to put delusional beliefs about the virtues of austerity in a depressed economy behind us.”

-- New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.




Some new school rules are unrealistic

All too often these days, people in powerful positions do things that make us shake our heads and say, “What were they thinking? Let’s count the ways. Start with the most important issue in the state of Florida: the education of our children and the state’s future. Florida has gained national recognition for its commitment to accountability. That means grading schools or connecting evaluations of teachers to their pay. Both are justified but require careful thought and implementation or else the education system can be damaged. Yet staff of the Florida Board of Education has suggested changes in the way school grades are calculated that are, in some cases, simply “dumb.” That’s the word used repeatedly by Joseph Joyner, superintendent of the St. Johns County public schools, one of the state’s best systems. The state is proposing the schools with profoundly handicapped students be included in school grades in ways that defy logic. Put simply, a student who can’t swallow by himself doesn’t belong in the broader grading system. Another example is treating students who don’t speak English with the same reading requirements as English speakers. Currently, they are given two years in the system before their reading scores are counted. In Texas, those students are given four years. So what does Florida recommend? Just one year. Are they trying to make schools fail? The superintendents realized that stricter requirements were going to drop a number of school grades. But in Duval County, the number of schools with F grades would increase from six to 28. What this means is that all the students at the F graded schools would have the right to transfer to a school with a C grade or better. But at some point soon, there won’t be enough schools to transfer to. Imagine those good schools with legions of new students showing up at once. The impact of all of this is beyond description. Apparently, it’s beyond imagination for some of our regulators.


Flagler school officials must amend union contract (Katie Hansen quoted)


St. Johns school bonus funds for teachers, staff held up by state


Bill would benefit big charter school firms

A legislative plan to give charter schools a cut of local school districts’ construction money would steer millions of additional dollars to large charter-school networks that are already sitting on tens of millions of dollars in cash, records show. The charter-school industry is lobbying hard in the capital to gain a share of tax dollars raised by school districts to cover the construction and maintenance costs of traditional public schools -- tax revenue that has dropped dramatically in recent years with plummeting real-estate values. Currently, school districts are not required to share these tax dollars with charter schools. School districts say the proposal could cost them as much as $140 million a year statewide and cripple their ability to repair aging school buildings and pay debts for past construction. But charter school operators say the lesser funding for their students is inherently unfair, and argue that withholding construction money has stifled charter schools’ growth. Earlier this month, Doug Rodriguez, the principal of the Doral Academy Preparatory Middle/High charter school, told a Senate committee that the lack of construction money has “placed a cap on our school. We’re not able to expand.” But many charter schools, including Rodriguez’s, routinely collect more tax dollars than they spend, and sock away the unspent cash. The Doral Academy charter-school network, comprised of five Miami-Dade schools, had net assets of $13.6 million last year, much of it cash, records show. The Doral Academy network is one of four large South Florida charter-school chains run by Academica, the state’s largest charter school operator. These four school networks -- the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies -- had combined assets of more than $83 million last year, records show. This money is held by nonprofit companies that own the schools, which are managed by Academica, a for-profit company based in South Miami. These schools could stand to gain millions more every year from the construction tax dollars, which would be distributed on a per-student basis. For example, the Doral, Mater, Somerset and Pinecrest academies -- which now have 45 percent of all charter-school students in Miami-Dade County -- would receive an additional $14.5 million from the Miami-Dade school district this year alone under the proposal. Academica’s schools aren’t the only ones with growing reserves. The proposed legislation would allow charters to spend the new tax dollars on construction and related expenses, and facility leases. Many South Florida charters lease their school buildings from companies with ties to their for-profit managers. Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, a sponsor of the proposal, said the issue is fairness: Under today’s rules, charter schools receive less money per student than traditional public schools. While some schools have large cash reserves, “the mom-and-pops have nothing,” he said. “We’re going to make all the kids equal.” But opponents of the measure say it will mainly benefit the large charter-school operators with high enrollment and robust balance sheets. “These are not the mom-and-pop charter schools that are pushing for this. These are the big management companies,” said Georgia Slack, a lobbyist for the Broward County School District. At the moment, the fate of the proposal remains uncertain. A Senate education committee approved Wise’s bill. But the sponsor in the House of Representatives was unable to tack on similar language to the House version of the bill last week. Observers believe the provision will resurface in a later draft.


Grading the teacher, judging the test


States try to fix quirks in teacher evaluations


Observers get key role in New York teacher evaluations


NEA's Read Across America tour to raise $1 million for public school libraries


Video ambush used in New Jersey GOP battle against teachers union
In its escalating war with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s Republican Party recently turned to a new tactic: ambushing the head of the union with a video camera in the hope of capturing an embarrassing YouTube moment. The association said last week that having videographers lurking outside their offices in hooded sweatshirts and knit caps showed the lengths to which Republicans would go in an effort to demonize educators. "That’s as low as you can go," said Steve Wollmer, an association spokesman. Republicans said they were simply trying to hold the association’s top official responsible for "insensitive" remarks about poor children trapped in struggling school districts. "I find it entertaining that the NJEA considers two young men with a camera, looking to hold their executive director accountable for his own words, as an attack," countered Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the state Republican Party.


Florida set for new cut in spending on colleges

Florida lawmakers contend that education is essential to high-wage jobs in the state, but the Legislature is again expected to slash millions of dollars from the budget for higher education and may usher in another round of tuition increases. A proposal in the House would reduce state financing by nearly $250 million next year and would allow universities to increase tuition by as little as 8 percent and as much as 15 percent. A measure in the Senate would cut more than $500 million and would allow smaller institutions that are defined as colleges to raise tuition by 3 percent (the full-scale universities would not be permitted to raise tuition). The cuts in Florida began four years ago and have continued unabated. Since 2008, state spending on education has dropped by 24 percent and is now at 2003 levels. Meanwhile, universities have raised tuition every year, putting many students in a financial bind. Florida’s 11 public universities have been raising tuition 15 percent a year for the past four years, and some of them for five years, although they still rank among the least expensive in the nation. Eduardo J. Padrón, the president of Miami Dade College, said the cuts in higher education spending in Florida were short-sighted. “At a time when institutions are growing and trying to serve a lot of students who realized that the only way to become a part of the middle class is by getting a college education, the state continues to disinvest in education,” said Padrón, whose college has country’s largest enrollment (not including online schools) and graduates the most blacks and Hispanics. “There should be no question that at this point in America today, investment in higher education is paramount.”


Numbers don't add up for UWF (commentary by William Belko)


USF disputes Alexander's math


Cuts to USF would carry heavy toll for bay area


Alexander's power play is wake-up call for bay area


Death of Florida's “dream” bill


Who expected Florida Legislature to give immigrant students a break?


With halftime over, legislators begin end game


Redistricting legal battle begins in briefs filed with state Supreme Court (FEA mentioned)


Absolute privilege? Absolutely NOT,0,2655482.story


Legislature takes hard line on taxes

Florida politics have become so conservative so quickly that just three years after state lawmakers approved a $1 billion cigarette tax hike, even Republican proposals for tax increases have been hamstrung or ignored in 2012. The sharp turn toward deep budget cuts, with no consideration of new revenues, reflects the looming influence of Gov. Rick Scott, the tea party and more conservative Senate leadership. Senate Republicans have filed legislation seeking to collect $40 million from a levy on bottled water, up to $200 million in new cigarette taxes and up to $800 million from taxing online transactions. Democrats are pushing a $500 million effort to close corporate tax loopholes. But none of the proposals were included in the $70.8 billion budget moving toward adoption in the Senate. The House already approved a spending plan that relies entirely on cutting state programs to close a $2 billion budget gap. Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, said the rigidly ideological budgeting approach hurts the state economy. “If you’re simply dogmatically not looking at the cost-benefit ratio and say no to any new investment, you’re going to become stagnant,” Altman said. As recently as 2009, the Republican-majority Legislature raised $2.2 billion from cigarette taxes and motor vehicle fees to help make ends meet. Nothing similar is on the table today.


House, Senate budgets not that far apart


Business-tax cut sought by governor rewritten to ease Florida cities' and counties' concerns,0,6966516.story


Bill seeks to cut minimum wage for servers

Worker advocates want Senate to kill bill that prohibits local wage theft crackdowns


Private or public, prison system can't be a profit center


Brawl over prisons not over,0,209293.story


Prison privatization proposal failure stings Haridopolos


Florida knows all about the 1 percent,0,51733.column


Alexander: respected, feared and despised


Renegade legislators seem to be a dying breed


BP oil spill's effects need watching


Legislation would steer DOT wetlands money to private industry with poor track record


Congress passes extension of payroll tax cut


Recovery Act is working (by Joe Biden)


Why sweeping state tax cuts don’t spur economic growth


Budget woes prompt erosion of public jobs, with a heavy toll in Silicon Valley


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