Today's news -- March 1, 2012



“From the 1940s to the 1970s, organized labor helped build a middle-class democracy in the United States. The postwar period was as successful as it was because of unions, which helped enact progressive social legislation from the Civil Rights Act to Medicare. Since then, union representation of American workers has fallen, in tandem with the percentage of income going to the middle class. Broadly shared prosperity has been replaced by winner-take-all plutocracy. Corporations will tell you that the American labor movement has declined so significantly -- to around 7 percent of the private-sector work force today, from 35 percent of the private sector in the mid-1950s -- because unions are obsolete in a global economy, where American workers have to compete against low-wage nonunion workers in other countries. But many vibrant industrial democracies, including Germany, have strong unions despite facing the same pressures from globalization. Other skeptics suggest that because laws now exist providing for worker safety and overtime pay, American employees no longer feel the need to join unions. But polling has shown that a majority of nonunion workers would like to join a union if they could. In fact, the greatest impediment to unions is weak and anachronistic labor laws.  It’s time to add the right to organize a labor union, without employer discrimination, to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, because that right is as fundamental as freedom from discrimination in employment and education. This would enshrine what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. observed in 1961 at an AFL-CIO convention: “The two most dynamic and cohesive liberal forces in the country are the labor movement and the Negro freedom movement.  Together, we can be architects of democracy.” The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” The First Amendment has been read to protect freedom of association, and the 1935 National Labor Relations Act recognized the “right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations,” but in reality, the opportunity to organize is a right without a remedy. Firing someone for trying to organize a union is technically illegal under the 1935 act, but there are powerful incentives for corporations to violate this right, in part because the penalties -- mitigated back pay after extended hearings -- are so weak.”

-- Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, and Moshe Marvit, a labor and job discrimination lawyer, are the authors of “Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy by Enhancing Worker Voice.”










What Florida is doing to its public schools (by Jean Clements)

Horace Mann called public education the “great equalizer.” Quite simply, he believed that without a strong system of public schools in this country, the elite would get an education while the middle class and poor would not. This week, a vote by the Florida State Board of Education makes it nearly impossible for public schools to be “great equalizers” in the Sunshine State. This vote, along with education legislation pending in the state Capitol, together threaten the future of Florida’s public schools. The state’s actions are “almost cataclysmic,” said Okaloosa County Superintendent Alexis Tibbetts. Horace Mann must be rolling over in his grave. The proposed legislation, commonly called “the parent trigger bill,” is a vehicle that allows parents of students at low-performing schools (so graded by the state) to petition the state or school district to allow these schools to be taken over by private companies or charter school operators. Most major parent groups in Florida such as the Florida PTA, Orlando-based Fund Education Now, Support Dade Schools, Save Duval Schools, and 50th No More, oppose this measure. Research shows and parents know that real school improvement comes from strong collaboration with school leaders, teachers, parents and others. Reform should be a collaborative discussion and decision-making process. In contrast, the parent trigger is designed to give private companies and charter management organizations an open invitation to exploit parents and take over schools -- destroying school communities. Rather than a grass-roots process, it’s an Astroturf mechanism by which companies circulate petitions to take over schools. This idea is being pushed by former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s education foundation, with support from the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and the James Madison Institute. The parent trigger becomes dangerous for Florida’s public schools when it is combined with a State Board of Education rule change adopted this week. Board members changed the grading system for the state’s schools, dramatically increasing the number of “F” schools, although not as severely as what was initially planned. Initial projections would have increased the number of schools receiving Fs from 38 to 268 -- a 700 percent increase. The new rules will require full inclusion of the scores from the most challenged students, including those in their first year of speaking English, who used to be omitted from the totals, and students with disabilities.


K-12 education ‘parent trigger bill’ passes state Senate subcommittee (Your correspondent quoted)


Bill would allow school employees to share sick leave  

Three years ago, Bayonet Point Middle School teacher Connie Duffy was ailing and out of sick leave. She kept coming to work, even as Stage 4 cancer pummeled her body, because she couldn't afford to go without a paycheck. "There are a lot of people who would have shared their (sick leave) time with Connie, if it were allowed," principal Mike Asbell recalled. "But it wasn't legal." Florida lawmakers took a big step toward changing that policy on Wednesday. The state Senate unanimously approved a bill that would permit school districts to allow employees to share their unused sick days with any district employee they choose. The state House unanimously supported the identical measure in February. If Gov. Rick Scott signs the legislation into law, district employees would no longer be limited to sharing their leave with family members also in the system, or to a general sick leave bank that workers could apply to. It would take effect July 1. (Vicki Rodriguez quoted)

Bills would "dismantle" early learning programs, advocates say

Early learning advocates came to Tallahassee on Wednesday to oppose several bills moving through the Florida House. Their chief concern: HB 7119, which would revise the School Readiness Act. They say the proposal would water down the state's high standards for school readiness providers -- and prescribe a one-size-fits-all model to Early Learning Coalitions across Florida. "What is at stake here is making genuine progress in helping children to succeed in school and life," said David Lawrence Jr., chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida. Evelio C. Torres, the president and CEO of the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, said the coalitions need flexibility to meet the unique needs of their communities. He noted that even Miami-Dade and Monroe have different needs. "This is an all-out attack from Tallahassee on local communities," Torres said. HB 7119 and several other bills were filed in response to an audit of the state's Office of Early Learning that found possible instances of fraud and waste. On Wednesday, the early learning advocates said they were more comfortable with a conforming bill by Sen. David Simmons that enacts some reforms, but maintains the educational standards. The group also praised efforts by Rep. Marti Coley to preserve high quality programs.


Child care under fire in Legislature


House passes bill to allow ads on school buses


School prayer marked for final passage,0,1316401.story


Ruling favors Monroe district (UTM mentioned)

Half-mil will help Franklin students


Pinellas school superintendent wants Scientology charter school closed


'Bully' deserves PG-13 rating to ensure film reaches parents and students (Randi Weingarten quoted)


As universities brace for huge cut, they're on their own with tuition

The Senate and House completed Round 3 of higher education budget negotiations tonight, and have agreed on many of the most nettlesome issues. Heading into Round 4 during an 8:30 a.m. meeting today, here's what the two chambers have agreed on so far:

* A $300 million one-time cut from the general revenue funds of the state's 11 universities. Although neither chamber has specified how those cuts will be spread across the system, the expectation is that universities would use reserve funds to cover the loss. It's unclear if that means the cuts will be commensurate in size to each reserve fund, meaning some schools will take more of a cut than others. Sen. J.D. Alexander sold the idea by depicting those reserves as uncommitted savings accounts. But representatives from universities say while money in reserves may not be committed to a specific line item, they are used for routine expenses such as summer school and ongoing research funding included in faculty hiring packages. The Senate has suggested $400 million in cuts. The House had suggested $200 million that would recur every year. The House agreed to one-time cuts, and the Senate agreed to a lower amount.

* No tuition increase approved by state lawmakers. The House had recommended an 8 percent tuition hike in its original budget. Now it has conferred with the Senate's plan for no "base" tuition hike, which could be spent on anything university administrators want to spend it on.

* Locally grown tuition increases of up to 15 percent. Both chambers agreed to leave it to universities to raise tuition to plug any holes left after the $300 million is taken out of the university system this year. Those hikes would need to be approved by each university's board of trustees, and then get subsequently approved by the Florida Board of Governors. Essentially, lawmakers are forcing the schools to take the political heat for tuition hikes. Another rub: the Legislature's budget factors in that the speculative 15 percent tuition hike, which assumes universities will seek the full amount. The 15 percent increase is allowed under a program called "tuition differential." The money from this type of tuition hike is spent in a much more restricted fashion. By state law, 70 percent of the revenue must be spent on undergraduate instruction, and 30 percent has to go to financial aid. None of it can be spent for other purposes, such as graduate courses or infrastructure. In addition, many students have their tuitions locked in at a certain rate for all four years. So of the estimated $159 million the universities could raise if they all raised tuition to the max, about $45 million would go uncollected because of these locked-in rates.


USF Pharmacy dean: cuts would decimate program


Students to protest tuition hikes, higher ed cuts today

Students from public universities across the state today will protest what they see as "aggressive attacks" on higher education in Florida. That includes tuition hikes and cuts to universities' funding -- both of which are currently being considered by the House and Senate as they work out a final budget. The Florida Alliance for Student Action is advertising events on seven university campuses: Students from the University of Florida will rally outside Senate President Mike Haridopolos' office on the UF campus, where he teaches a political science course. Florida State University and Florida A&M University students will march from their Tallahassee campuses to the Capitol. University of South Florida students will stage a walkout from classes then walk across campuses. Florida Atlantic University students and teachers will hold a joint teach-in. University of West Florida students will gather on the campuses' main lawn, and at the University of Central Florida, students will construct a "Wall of Debt" out of bricks representing individual students' loan burdens.


Justices seek input on how to handle new redistricting rules

Faced with writing a precedent-setting ruling that could shape the state's political lines for decades, the Florida Supreme Court on Wednesday aggressively grilled lawyers representing Democrats and Republicans, asking them how to interpret the state's new redistricting rules. "We need help,'' said Justice Barbara Pariente, who dominated questioning during the three-hour hearing on the Legislature's reapportionment plans. The court has until March 9 to decide if the maps comply with the Fair Districts anti-gerrymandering standards approved by voters in 2010. It has three options:

• Send the maps back to the Legislature to try again.

• Validate the maps as compliant.

• Validate the maps, but acknowledge that a lawsuit could be brought through the trial court to sort out flaws.

"You are the ultimate authority,'' said Jon Mills, a University of Florida law professor and former House speaker arguing for the Florida Democratic Party. The Legislature's interpretation "may be interesting but your interpretation is binding." The new rules establish three landmark standards that legislators must follow when they do the once-a-decade redistricting process. They prohibit lawmakers from intentionally protecting incumbents and political parties; require them to preserve minority voting rights; and, order them to draw compact districts where possible. But the new standards don't offer the court any guidance as to how to define those concepts, and the court was clearly divided over how far it should go. "How can we possibly second-guess the Legislature,'' asked Chief Justice Charles Canady, a former state legislator and congressman who made it clear he wants the court to take a very limited review of the maps. George Meros, a lawyer from the GrayRobinson firm representing the House, responded that the complex nature of the issues involved made it "virtually impossible" for the court to consider without detailed evidentiary review. "This is an incredibly difficult balancing of standards that takes thousands of hours to do," Meros said. He urged the court to leave disputes over interpretations of the new constitutional standards to a trial court, where evidence and witnesses could be cross examined. Lawyers for the Republicans, including the House, Senate and Attorney General Pam Bondi, had asked the court to follow the procedure used in 2002 when the court looked at the maps and approved them. But lawyers for the Democratic Party, the League of Women Voters, the National Council of La Raza and Common Cause of Florida argued that the court had an obligation to delve deeper this time in order to decide if the Legislature followed the new rules. Three of the seven justices seemed ready to do that. Justices Pariente and Peggy Quince suggested that new amendments elevate the court's burden beyond the role they had in previous redistricting years. Justice Fred Lewis suggested that the court had an obligation to define the new standards. A limited review "would defeat the intent of the voters,'' Pariente said. "It's not fair to the citizens. It's not fair to the potential candidates and it's not fair to the process." Pariente suggested the court must not only determine if the Legislature appropriately applied the new standards but must define the standards, such as compactness and retrogression -- the legal standard used by the U.S. Justice Department to determine if a minority group is worse off because of redistricting.,0,7089603.story


Florida voter restrictions challenged

Florida will become the latest battleground in the national fight voter ID today, when a federal judge will hear a suit brought by Rock the Vote and other civic groups over new restrictions. “In states around the country, we’re witnessing the most significant assault on voting rights in a generation,” said Heather Smith, President of Rock the Vote, which encourages political participation. “It’s incredibly anti-American and undemocratic.” In the past year, 15 states have enacted new laws dealing with voting access, according to Rock the Vote. In January of this year, new laws went into effect in Kansas, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Texas that require voters to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. The flurry of legislation at the state level has been challenged both by the Obama administration and other civic groups across the country. In December, the Justice Department rejected South Carolina’s new requirement of photo IDs at the polling booth. Since the state has a history of discrimination with regards to voting, the state was mandated to submit changes in voting procedures to the Justice Department or a court for clearance under the Voting Rights Act. The Sunshine State will be the latest jurisdiction to see a face-off between those who seek to make more restrictive voting procedures to combat voter fraud and those who aspire to make voting more accessible. H.B. 1355, which was sponsored by Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley, reduces the number of days for early voting, eliminates the ability for voters to change their address at voting stations, and creates new administrative requirements for third-party civic groups that seek to organize voter registration drives. “What problem is that trying to solve?” asked Smith, who asserted that there were not enough incidences of voter fraud to make it an issue worth addressing. “We’re trying to address problems that don’t really exist, and in turn making it harder for people to vote.” Some students argue that these new regulations would make it more difficult for young voters to participate in the political process. “What my fellow students and I are wondering is, ‘why, instead of helping students to vote, are our elected officials spending their time trying to stop us from voting?’” said Anna Eskamani, a student at the University of Central Florida associated with Rock the Vote. “We should be trying to encourage our students and young people to vote, not deterring them and making the process more difficult.”


Bad business: Helping restaurants on the backs of those who live on tips


Florida House passes bill that would prevent county anti-wage-theft laws,0,292137.story


Medicaid billing fight could cost Florida counties


Foreclosure speed-up bill passes House


Democrats, GOP can agree -- when their perks at stake


Tensions raise specter of gas at $5 a gallon


Schools try to match the jobless with 3.4 million jobs

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