Today's news -- March 2, 2017



Education changes will drive lawmakers’ agenda

Every level of Florida’s public education system — affecting kindergarten to university students — faces some measure of drastic reform in the upcoming legislative session that begins Tuesday. Just some of what’s on the table:

▪ “Dramatic” expansions of school choice alternatives in K-12 public schools and the state’s voucher-like scholarship programs are a top priority of Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran. His education chairmen also have grand goals of narrowing the achievement gap for the state’s lowest-performing schools by attracting and expanding innovative educational options.

▪ The operations of Florida’s 28 public colleges could be reined in over what some senators see as unnecessary competition with the state’s public universities, sparking a need for more oversight.

▪ And the State University System itself faces a changed future as Republican Senate President Joe Negron seeks to make Florida’s 12 public universities globally competitive with the likes of the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan. It’s a bold, sweeping agenda for both the House and Senate — intentionally so, Republican leaders say. “We understand that it’s extremely ambitious; I think we wouldn’t have it any other way. There is a clear opportunity this year,” House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said. “You have to make dramatic changes if you’re going to have dramatic results,” he added. The higher education reforms — with the exception of the state college changes — generally seem to have little opposition, but the K-12 reforms the House envisions are likely to spark backlash from supporters of traditional public schools, such as Democrats and the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association. However, with the 2017 session already set up to be a combative affair, there’s real potential Corcoran and Negron might get in each other’s way and that their favored education proposals might be caught in the political cross-fire. Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, rejects that the education reforms could end up being used as leverage for negotiating -- a practice that lawmakers commonly employ every year so that House and Senate leaders can eventually declare mutual success in achieving their goals before the annual 60-day session ends. “I don’t like the horse-trading stuff; that ends up in bad policy,” said Corcoran, who aims to “change the culture” of the Legislature. “We’re not going to do any of that. ... I can’t — we [the House] can’t — govern the behavior of other entities, but I think that a lot of times all it takes is one chamber to say: ‘This is how we’ll behave.’ ” But Negron -- a Stuart Republican known for his diligent and wonkish approach to policy and the legislative process -- won’t rule it out: “As Senator [Anitere] Flores says: ‘Everything is related to everything.’ So I’ll leave it at that,” he said. House education committees have spent much of their pre-session workweeks holding discussions on key issues in preparation for what Diaz described as “a very aggressive agenda when it comes to school reform.”


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Negron puts spotlight on higher ed system

Although he has three degrees, including a law degree from Emory University and a master's from Harvard, Senate President Joe Negron went back to college last spring. It was a unique journey for an incoming legislative leader that took Negron on a tour of Florida's 12 public universities, from the University of West Florida at the western edge of the Panhandle to Florida International University in the urban center of Miami-Dade County. Negron's trip, which included talking with students, professors and administrators, helped him form the basis of an ambitious plan for the 2017 legislative session to elevate Florida's higher-education system. His legislative thesis is straightforward: He believes Florida, as the nation's third-largest state, should have some of the best public universities in the country, on par with institutions like the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia. Negron, R-Stuart, wants to substantially boost university funding while also holding schools to higher performance standards, including having more undergraduates finish in four years. He also wants to offer more financial support and incentives to students, including expanding the Bright Futures merit scholarship program and providing more aid to low-income students. Key elements of Negron's plan are in line with Gov. Rick Scott, who also supports expanding Bright Futures, using measurement standards and making higher education more affordable. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said he is open to ideas like expanding Bright Futures and other higher-education initiatives "that transform and make Floridians' lives better." The biggest unknown is the state budget, with the expectation that lawmakers will have to balance their legislative priorities against an austere spending plan. But Negron, a veteran lawmaker who has chaired budget committees in the House and Senate, said over time the higher-education initiative "and targeted financial investments in faculty and infrastructure will enhance the national reputation of Florida's state university system."


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