Today's news -- March 28, 2017





“This is an abomination,” Lee says of testing politics *

Efforts by the state Senate to address too much standardized testing in Florida’s public schools this year are on the rocks after a key proposal was abruptly postponed Monday when one senator objected to what he called an “abomination” of the legislative process. After forcing the delay, veteran Republican and former Senate President Tom Lee blasted his own party leaders for last-minute political tactics and for “stealing” components of a popular Democratic bill in order to salvage a separate reform proposal from Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who is No. 2 in the chamber behind Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. “There’s right and there’s wrong, and just because Sen. [Bill] Montford is a member of the minority party — that’s the only reason his legislation isn’t up,” said Lee, of Thonotosassa. “This guy gets run over by the majority party just because they don’t want him to get credit for a meaningful, thoughtful piece of legislation that’s been worked on for a year.” Lee added: “This is just such a flawed process to undergo, and I’m embarrassed by it. As a member of the Senate that’s been here 15 years and believes this process ought to work off of mutual trust and respect for the process, this is an abomination.” At the heart of the dispute are two competing reform measures: SB 964 by Montford, D-Tallahassee, which has broad bipartisan and public support, and Flores’ SB 926 — the main advocate of which is Jeb Bush’s influential Foundation for Florida’s Future, which helped write the bill. Several senators on the Education Committee said Monday that they want to consider Montford’s bill because it includes more substantive and comprehensive reforms than Flores’, yet her proposal was the one that Senate leaders chose to take up. Seeking compromise and to make Flores’ measure more palatable to critics, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, proposed six drastic changes to blend her bill with Montford’s. But his amendments came after Monday’s meeting had already begun -- giving the committee members barely an hour to review them before the bill was called up. Throughout the meeting, Flores and Simmons huddled together in intense discussion, and Flores also worked the room, visiting with other committee members one-on-one to shore up support. At one point, even Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens -- who is not a member of the committee -- was in the room and involved in the talks. But when it was time for Flores’ bill to be considered, Lee immediately moved to postpone it and demanded a roll-call vote, so that senators would be on the record supporting or opposing the delay. The delay was approved 5-4, with Flores — who wasn’t a member of the committee until this week — casting the deciding vote. Flores takes the place of chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, who has been gone all session and will continue to be absent because she’s recovering from cancer. Montford, a former superintendent of Leon County public schools who now works as CEO of the superintendents’ statewide association, could not be reached for comment Monday. After the meeting, Simmons and Flores downplayed the public divide among the senators. Flores said she’d been working “very closely” with Montford on the changes to her bill, and she conceded Lee’s point that senators had no time to consider the amendments. “Now we have a little more time to talk about them,” she said. Flores’ bill is dubbed the “Fewer, Better Tests” bill, but it doesn’t actually reduce or eliminate any testing. Its main function would be to shift all assessment tests to the final three weeks of the school year and require a faster turnaround time for teachers and parents to get results. By comparison, Montford’s plan has multiple facets to reduce and improve testing -- and he had the support of nearly a quarter of the Senate when he formally unveiled it earlier this month. His bill would get rid of end-of-course exams in geometry, Algebra II, U.S. history and civics; would let students use the SAT or ACT in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments; would shift testing to the last four weeks of the school year, and afford districts the discretion of using paper-and-pencil tests instead of requiring computerized exams. It also repeals a controversial formula to evaluate teachers based on their students’ year-over-year growth on exams. “His bill is replete with thoughtful reforms about how to reduce the amount of testing in this state,” said Lee, who is co-sponsoring Montford’s measure. “The piece of legislation that we actually had on the agenda today did not one thing to reduce testing, and to me, it’s just a personal affront to Senator Montford.” The Senate Education Committee could revisit the testing reforms as early as next week, but it’s unclear if senators will proceed with modifying Flores’ bill or if they’ll take up Montford’s instead. The House companion to Montford’s bill is essentially dead for the session. HB 1249 has not gotten a hearing yet, and its first assigned committee — the Pre-K-12 Quality Subcommittee — had its final meeting of the session on Monday. Meanwhile, the House companion to Flores’ bill, HB 773 from Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., is scheduled to get its second of three hearings on Tuesday in Diaz’s budget committee.

The fight provided another indication of the complicated politics of testing in the Legislature, and particularly in the Senate. Many Republicans side with the education accountability movement, spearheaded by former Gov. Jeb Bush during his time in office and since promoted by the Foundation for Florida’s Future, an organization set up by Bush. But other members of the GOP have increasingly called for streamlining tests. Lee has openly questioned why students who do well on college-admissions tests also have to take the high school graduation exam.

There is a growing resistance to using standardized tests to measure student’s learning gains. Parents and teachers complain that during the last two decades Florida has created a system that dominates the curriculum and school day. Groups like Opt-Out Florida, Accountabaloney, The Tea Party Network and Stop Common Core have banded together into the Common Ground Coalition to pressure lawmakers to change a system they say benefits only the testing companies and “sucks the joy” out of learning, according to one former teacher.


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Trump working to channel tax dollars to private schools

The Trump administration is considering a first-of-its-kind federal tax credit scholarship program that would channel billions of dollars to families from working-class households to enable their children to attend private schools, including religious schools. The federal tax credit proposal is one of several ideas under review by the White House to fulfill Donald Trump’s campaign promise to promote the expansion of charter schools and vouchers that would allow families of low income to use public money for private school tuition, sources say. During a recent meeting with parents and teachers at the White House, Trump said he wants “every single disadvantaged child in America, no matter what their background or where they live, to have a choice about where they go to school.” But the federal tax credit proposal already has critics on the left and right. Public school advocates say such a tax credit is a voucher program in disguise and would divert tax dollars from struggling public schools. “The end result is the same -- federal tax dollars going to private schools,” said Sasha Pudelski, assistant director for policy and advocacy at AASA, The School Superintendents Association, who called the program “a backdoor voucher.” Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has pointed to Florida’s tax credit scholarship program as one of her biggest successes. Before being named to Trump’s Cabinet, DeVos was on the board of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a reform group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. Together, they pushed for the creation and expansion of tax credit scholarship programs across the country.  The nonprofit Step Up for Students, which helps administer Florida’s program, says it has served more than 97,000 students. The scholarships, for low and middle-income students, are worth nearly $6,000 each. Nearly 70 percent of student recipients are black or Hispanic and more than 1,700 private schools participate in the program. More than 80 percent of students use the scholarships to attend religious schools, with most coming from large, urban districts, a recent state report shows. Florida’s program, however, has been beset by legal challenges. And groups representing the nation’s traditional public schools say they would fight any proposals to introduce such plans on the federal level.


Trump signs bills overturning Obama education rules

President Trump signed bills Monday overturning two Obama-era education regulations, continuing the Republican majority’s effort to undo key pieces of the previous administration’s legacy. Trump’s move scraps new requirements for programs that train new K-12 teachers and rolls back a set of rules outlining how states must carry out the Every Student Succeeds Act, a bipartisan federal law meant to hold schools accountable for student performance. In a signing ceremony at the White House on Monday, the president hailed the measures for “removing an additional layer of bureaucracy to encourage freedom in our schools.” Leaders of the Republican majority claimed that the accountability rules represented an executive overreach by former president Barack Obama. Democrats argued that rescinding the rules opens loopholes that states can use to shield poorly performing schools from scrutiny, especially when they fail to serve poor children, minorities, English-language learners and students with disabilities. Civil rights and business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, also opposed doing away with the rules. The measure to repeal the regulations passed easily in the GOP-dominated House, but barely made it out of the Senate on a 50 to 49 vote, mostly along party lines.


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House wants cuts in higher education budget

The Florida House is pushing for $164 million in budget cuts in its initial higher-education budgets. Under a plan outlined by the House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee on Monday, universities would see a $110 million cut, while state colleges would face $61 million in reductions. Small increases in other higher-education programs, including workforce education and private colleges, lowers the proposed net reduction to $164 million. "I recognize that reducing a budget is never an easy thing to do," said subcommittee Chairman Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. "However, compared to other areas of the state, higher education was due for an adjustment, and that will allow funding for other areas of need in the state." The House proposal is not a surprise after a hearing this month by the Appropriations Committee, which raised questions about university spending, the use of foundations by universities and state colleges and large reserves compiled by each system. The proposal is an initial step as the House prepares to pass an overall spending plan and then begin negotiations with the Senate. The negotiations will lead to a budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. Ahern said university spending has grown "exponentially faster" than every other major program in the state budget in recent years, with the exception of Medicaid. He also cited the $839 million in reserve funds compiled by the universities and more than $300 million in reserves held by state colleges. Ahern said the House budget plan would eliminate the use of state funds to pay the salaries of foundation employees, which amounted to about $53 million for universities and $9.8 million for state colleges in the current year. "Simply put, this practice uses taxpayer dollars to create permanent wealth for the colleges and universities," Ahern said. The House budget cuts are based on permanently eliminating the foundation personnel payments, allowing the schools to maintain a 5 percent reserve and then cutting the university reserves by 25 percent and the state college reserves by 22 percent. The House higher-education cuts could put the chamber at odds with the Senate, where Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has advanced an initiative to elevate Florida's state universities.


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House Democrats ask Nunes to recuse himself from Russia inquiry


Nunes is making it very hard for Republicans to claim they can be impartial



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23 people ask the Justice Department to launch a criminal inquiry into Sessions


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Trump pressures committee to probe the Clintons’ ties to Russia, not his


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Senate Democrats delay committee vote on Gorsuch nomination


Gorsuch may fall short of votes needed for smooth Supreme Court confirmation


Schumer headed for epic clash with McConnell


Nelson comes out against Gorsuch


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Congress may stiff Trump on wall funding


Florida among 13 states urging appeals court to OK Trump travel ban


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Memo to Kushner: Managing government isn’t like business. It’s much harder.


Trump tearing up Obama's years of progress on tackling climate change


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I am an Arctic researcher. Trump is deleting my citations.


Climate change denialists in charge




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