Today's news -- June 12, 2017





When Legislature faltered, Scott took advantage

The midnight phone call to Senate President Joe Negron from Florida Gov. Rick Scott on June 1 was not unexpected. Scott wanted the Stuart Republican to attend a news conference in Miami the next morning where the governor, Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran would announce a special session to redo the public education budget and an economic development bill the governor wanted to veto. This was the second year in a row the Legislature had rejected the governor's priorities but, unlike last year, when he didn't get his $1 billion tax cut or $250 million in economic development funds and still declared victory, the offense this year cut more deeply. Scott, a two-term Republican, is widely expected to announce his candidacy for U.S. Senate next year and legislators had deeply underfunded his economic development priorities and the K-12 public education budget. What's more, the governor's statewide campaign — which included a road tour and television ads — to personally call out Republican House members for supporting Corcoran's cuts to the tourism marketing and economic development agencies hadn't changed a single legislator's mind. But by antagonizing Scott, Negron and Corcoran also brought the regular session to a messy end, thereby giving the governor a special weapon — veto leverage over their priority projects. Negron agreed to appear at the news conference and, before seeing Scott's budget vetoes, also agreed to return for a three-day special session that ended Friday. After a fractious week, legislators ended on time but, to get there, Negron overcame an embarrassing loss of confidence from his members for prematurely agreeing to a deal. Corcoran was forced to capitulate and fund higher education projects he had derided as "pork-barrel spending" and restore funds to Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, which he claimed "threw away tens of millions of your taxpayer dollars." And despite promises that this was the year Tallahassee would be "transformed," the special session ended by delivering more of the same: backroom deal-making that resolved differences over a trade. "For all the bluster about how we're changing things and how we're doing things differently, it's par for the course,'' said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. Legislators not only agreed to the governor's call to restore $215 million in public education funding and return $75 million to Visit Florida, they also gave Scott something he didn't have before: an $85 million infrastructure and workforce development grant program that gives him exclusive control of projects he can steer anywhere in the state, regardless of whether it produces jobs or not.  It was a more amicable ending than the regular session when Negron and Corcoran exploited a loophole in the rules and dictated the terms of 15 take-it-or-leave-it policy bills that would be subject to no amendments, leaving many legislators — especially in the more independent-minded Senate — angered and frustrated at the top-down demands that locked them into deals they had little role in. “It's what happens when you have a legislative body that is essentially run on a para-military command structure — from the top down," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. Among the bills was a controversial charter school expansion, HB 7069, that school districts distrusted and advocacy groups hated. Under Corcoran's direction, and with some Senate input, the bill was cobbled together behind closed doors and unveiled less than three days before lawmakers had to vote up-or-down on it with no chance to change it. It passed the Senate only by one vote, and then the public outcry began. Calls and emails flooded the governor's office, urging him to veto or sign the controversial measure. Corcoran called the bill "transformational" and promised the $140 million in incentives for privately-run charter schools and $233 million for teacher bonuses would help rescue perpetually failing schools. But public school advocates warned that it was designed to shut down troubled schools to open the door to for-profit charter operators, and could make thousands of children pawns in the experiment. Scott, who has been a sideline player nearly every legislative session, quickly joined the criticism and chided the way the bill was passed, but he refrained from making a commitment about whether he would sign or veto it. That gave him leverage over the priority legislation and a rare negotiating advantage to demand fixes to the budget. In an attempt to preserve the coveted gains Negron achieved with his priority bill, SB 374, which boosted spending for universities, and Corcoran achieved with HB 7069, they agreed to the special session. In exchange for Scott's promise to sign HB 7069, Corcoran would agree to reverse course and agree to the governor's priorities. The Visit Florida program would be fully funded and a Senate proposal to allow local governments to obtain matching funds to pay for programs provided a back-door way to preserve efforts to cut it next year.


Sources: Governor to sign HB 7069 on Thursday

Governor Rick Scott will sign into law a sweeping education bill that would steer more money to privately run charter schools, require recess in elementary schools, and tinker with the state’s oft-criticized standardized testing system. An informed legislative source told on Monday morning that Scott will sign HB 7069 in Orlando on Thursday. The legislation, which was a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, barely edged out of the Florida Senate on a 20-18 vote where some Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the measure. Corcoran said that the changes are even more dramatic than the A+ plan put in by former Gov. Jeb Bush nearly two decades ago that created the state’s first voucher program and created the state’s current school grading system. The Senate vote came after intense debate in which opponents contended the legislation was a give-away to charter schools, which are public schools that are run by private organizations and sometimes managed by for-profit companies. The nearly 300-page bill includes a long list of education changes that legislators had been considering. But the final bill was negotiated largely in private and was not seen by the public until after it was passed. Some of the final changes drew the ire of the state’s teacher unions, parent groups as well as superintendents of some of Florida’s largest school districts.


Some lawmakers say new K-12 spending isn’t enough *

Some Democratic lawmakers criticized a new K-12 schools budget the Legislature approved for 2017-18 that would boost spending by $100 per student over this school year — calling the additional dollars a “hollow victory” and “not enough” to truly address public education. “I believe the increase is helpful but more is needed,” said Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami. “Florida is the third largest state in the nation, yet our per-pupil funding is still $3,000 below the national average.” “We’re underfunding public education,” agreed Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. “That’s a mistake. That sells short the future of our state. Public education has been the great leveler in this country; it’s been the main means of advancement for people of modest means,” Geller added, before making reference to a $419 million, charter school-friendly bill (HB 7069) lawmakers passed last month: “We’re putting way too much money into non-public education at the expense of public education.” The increased funding — addressed in a contentious three-day special session last week — was a compromise between Gov. Rick Scott and House and Senate leaders after Scott a week ago vetoed the Legislature’s initial K-12 budget, deeming it insufficient. In calling lawmakers back to Tallahassee, Scott asked for $215 million more in state money for K-12 in order to raise the per-pupil level by $100, an increase of 1.4 percent. That’s what the Legislature ultimately approved on Friday, by votes of 107-6 in the House and 31-4 in the Senate. The budget lawmakers initially voted for in May increased per-pupil spending only by $24 per student, or 0.34 percent — which was slightly more than what the conservative House originally proposed earlier this year. (By comparison, Scott and the Senate both wanted much higher increases in spending — at least an extra $210 per student from this year.) For some school districts, the meager increase in the budget lawmakers OK’d in May would have actually cut state aid they rely on to pay for school operations, and educators urged Scott to reject it. Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former schools superintendent who now is CEO for the statewide superintendents’ association, said that spending level would have required teachers to be fired and some programs to be cut.


Less money from the people who brought more tests *

The premise is simple: The state is in charge of funding for education in Florida, and so local school boards should shut up and do what they are told when it comes to policies. There's just one problem with that: Some local districts have been providing a greater percentage of education funding than the state, which means Tallahassee is offering less and interfering more. In what universe does that make sense? Or you could think of it this way: State leaders have made it abundantly clear they do not welcome the federal government attaching conditions to health care funding, so why should local school districts accept similar intrusions when the state doesn't provide the majority of education funds? It is, in a word, backward. According to Pinellas County's projections, the state provided about 45.3 percent of the funding for general operating revenues in the school year just finished. Fifteen years ago, the state provided 53.9 percent of those funds. Twenty years ago, the state accounted for more than 60 percent of funds. Miami-Dade schools recently made a similar point, saying state funds accounted for 61 percent of the district's funding in 2004-05 and 42 percent in 2016-17. By itself, providing inadequate resources is a problem. Providing inadequate resources with greater demands borders on cruel and unusual. And even some legislators acknowledge that. "I believe, as a state, we overreach when it comes to impeding on local governments,'' said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former Leon County superintendent. “I'm a firm believer that local control is better, especially when it comes to school districts.” The problem is not that Florida is providing a smaller pot of money. It's that the state has come up with so many unwelcome mandates that many local districts must spend more money to fund them all. Requiring more physical education credits could mean a district has to hire more physical education teachers. Complicated teacher evaluations have led to more end-of-course exams. Edicts in security or transportation or length of school days could all have an effect on local budgets. “Oh my gosh, I could give you a list of mandates that goes on for eight pages,'' said Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook. “We've had conversations about this: At what point are they going to simply want to get rid of school boards because they've taken all of the decisions out of our hands?'' Because needs and circumstances vary from area to area, the state actually provides more funding than local sources when you combine all 67 counties. Which, in a way, proves my point. Every county is different, and the state needs to stop treating Florida as a one-size-fits-all proposition. It's silly to think Hillsborough County has the same needs as Hardee County, and it's even sillier to think a legislator from Broward County understands both communities better than the local school board members. Yet the Legislature has gotten more brazen than ever this year. Not only do legislators want to tell school boards how to spend their money as a general philosophy, the recently passed HB 7069 would make them turn over even more local funds to charter schools. Doesn't matter that charter schools could be managed by for-profit corporations. Doesn't matter that the Legislature doesn't require charters to follow all the mandates they impose on traditional schools. The state has the authority to dictate how education dollars are spent, and lawmakers are determined to privatize schools in Florida. It's as close to a legal theft of taxpayer funds as you're likely to see. HB 7069, which public school advocates are urging Gov. Rick Scott to veto, also changes how much control local districts have over construction projects, federal money for low-income schools and teacher bonuses. "It's an extremely slippery slope they're wanting to go down,'' said Pinellas County Superintendent Mike Grego. “It hits at the very heart of fair and equitable funding.''


Public schools get more, but are still cheated *

Gov. Rick Scott got Visit Florida and an $85 million economic-development piggy bank. House Speaker Richard Corcoran got school reforms. Senate President Joe Negron got money to strengthen Herbert Hoover dike. And Floridians, including a lot of state lawmakers, got shut out of the process. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when legislative leaders and the governor go into a room and lock the door. The Legislature’s three-day special session ended Friday. Propelled by educators’ outcry statewide over the pitiable public-education budget that lawmakers cooked up during the traditional annual session and, especially the lack of funding for his pet projects, Visit Florida and Enterprise Florida, Scott called them back for a do-over on key issues. Scott was right to spurn the alternative — vetoing the entire $82 billion budget. That would have meant that good things, including funds to jump-start the long-stalled water-storage reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, would have fallen by the wayside. By Friday, months-long skirmishes among Scott, Corcoran and Negron had been smoothed over, with everyone declaring a win. Visit Florida avoided a deep budget cut and, instead, will get $76 million. Enterprise Florida, the governor’s other favorite, lost the bulk of its money for job incentives. However, Scott gets to control an $85 million pot of money for job-creating road and infrastructure projects. Why the governor can better gauge the most valuable projects for the state, as opposed to the pros at Enterprise Florida, is a head-scratcher. How equitably Scott will disburse the funds is anyone’s guess. The Democrats have called it a “slush fund.” We agree. But it’s a great way for the governor, with his eye on higher elected office, to curry favor across the state. So the money might indeed be doled out more equitably than we expect. Sounds cynical, yes, but this is Florida. The health of the environment got a boost with $50 million to strengthen Herbert Hoover Dike, surrounding Lake Okeechobee, to keep overflow from causing toxic algae blooms in estuaries and coastal waters. Miami Dade College will receive $4.2 million for a campus gym renovation. Florida International University will get $12.7 million for a new School of International and Public Affairs. However, public-school and K-12 advocates are still crying foul, even though schools received an enhanced allocation in the new education budget. They are right to be aggrieved. Even taking into account the additional $100 per pupil that lawmakers inserted last week, state funding for public schools still lags the national average of $10,600, at just over $7,000. That’s a disgrace for the third-largest state in the nation, especially since Republican lawmakers and the governor are intent on hobbling public schools, which must take all comers, in favor of for-profit charter schools, which don’t. Last month, we urged the governor to veto this. This month, we still say it’s a raw deal for public school students.


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