Today's news -- March 31, 2017





“Union-busting” bill passes House; Senate in doubt *

A highly controversial measure opponents describe as “union-busting” legislation meant to target Florida public school teachers passed the Republican-led House Thursday in a near party-line vote, although it’s unlikely to have any life in the Senate. Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said his proposal, HB 11, “provides greater transparency, democracy and accountability to public-sector labor unions,” but Democrats lined up on the House floor to question Republicans’ motives for endorsing the bill. “This bill targets teachers, state and local government employees, nurses, bus drivers and many others who serve us and care for us every day,” Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee said. “And we’re targeting them, because these organizations make political decisions that some people don’t like. That is wrong.” Under the bill, any public-sector union — except those representing firefighters and law enforcement or corrections officers — would be automatically decertified if more than 50 percent of the workers they represent don’t pay dues to the organization. The unions would have to report to the state annually how many employees are eligible for representation by the union and then how many of them do and don’t pay annual dues. If the union fell short of the 50 percent mark in dues-paying members, it would be decertified as the official bargaining unit for those workers and have to go through the formal process of re-establishing itself, much like a new union does to form. Florida is a right-to-work state, so employees cannot be forced to join or pay dues to a union that represents them. Although HB 11 easily passed the House by a 75-41 vote, the Senate version (SB 1292) has long odds of getting any traction. It hasn’t been heard yet, and the session’s nearly half over. It was assigned to four committees — signaling it’s not highly desired by leadership — and its first stop, Commerce & Tourism, is chaired by a Democrat. In advocating for his bill during House floor discussion Wednesday, Plakon said repeatedly he felt it was “wrong” to “have a small number of people imposing their will on a large group of people.” Citing only anecdotal evidence and providing no data or research to back up his claims, Plakon said some labor unions in Florida had only 2 percent or 3 percent of their members paying dues to the organization. “Public-sector unions should have to operate in a more transparent fashion under time-honored, democratic, majority-rule principles where the union has to be responsive, or more responsive, to its members,” Plakon said Thursday. Several Democrats alleged that Republicans were using the bill as a “disguise” to weaken unions — and specifically to go after the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union. Last fall, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, called the union “evil” because it had challenged in court a Republican-backed, voucher-like program that helps low-income families afford private school. “It’s more bullying,” House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, of Tampa, said of HB 11. “Stop bullying teachers. Stop bullying teachers’ right to organization. Stop bullying teachers’ voices.” “I have no idea what you’re talking about with the teachers’ union,” Plakon replied to Democrats. “Impugning those motives on why I’m doing the bill is simply not correct.” Asked for comment on the bill’s passage, FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow said only: “Why is the House wasting taxpayer money on a bill that isn’t needed?” Three Republicans — Thad Altman of Indialantic, Tom Goodson of Rockledge, and Rene Plasencia of Orlando — joined Democrats in voting against the bill. Outside of House Republicans, the only vocal supporter of HB 11 is Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group that has received funding from the Koch brothers and that lobbied aggressively for the bill.


House committees flesh out plans to boost charters

House leaders have revealed detailed plans for boosting charter schools after pledging for weeks to invest heavily in alternatives to traditional public education. House education committees this week approved three proposed committee bills that would ease the proliferation of charter schools, including giving them access to significantly more public money. The cutoff for proposing new bills is long past, but legislative leaders often stuff their priorities into the proposed committee bills, which are not subject to the same deadlines.  One of the bills, a top priority in the House’s proposed budget, would allocate hundreds of millions of dollars to incentivize high-performing charter networks from around the country to locate schools in Florida communities where traditional public schools are failing. Another would repeal certain statutes that hinder high-performing charter schools from replicating. A third allow charters access to local facilities funding currently available only to traditional public schools. The chamber unveiled the legislation in the same week it presented its 2017-18 budget plan, which includes a much smaller increase to traditional public schools than what Gov. Rick Scott and the Senate have proposed. During a House education committee meeting Thursday, prominent Republican members argued that some traditional public schools have squandered millions in local, state and federal funds without improving outcomes for their students. Money isn’t the answer, they stressed. What persistently D- and F-rated schools need are a new approach. State Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., a Hialeah Republican who chairs the chamber’s education budget committee, advocated for the bill that would entice charter operators that have been successful in impoverished communities elsewhere to open “schools of hope” near failing public schools in Florida. The legislation is tied to a $200 million budget allocation that would help the charters pay start-up costs, compensate teachers, offer professional development and lengthen the school calendar, among other initiatives. “We have tried everything else. It is our moral responsibility to make this move and try this option for our kids,” said Diaz, a former public school teacher and principal who now works for an unaccredited college operated by a charter school management company. “It’s time to try something different.” Several Democrats on the committee voted against the bill. Rep. Shevrin Jones, another former teacher, said his colleagues were “sadly mistaken” if they believed a private company from outside Florida could solve the societal problems that hinder progress in schools serving poor communities. “If we sit at this table and we believe that just because we bring in a different entity, that they are going to turn around a school, we are not telling the truth,” said Jones, of West Park, the committee's ranking Democrat. “If we have $200 million to give, put computers inside the class. If we have $200 million to give, pay teachers to stay at the school longer. If we have extra money to give, pay to make sure that [public schools] have the support,” he said. A representative for the Florida Education Association, a statewide teachers union, also argued that the Legislature should invest resources in struggling schools so they can do try some of the same things the charters want to, like paying teachers more and extending the school day or year. “You’ve been really clear in the priorities in the bill and the budget,” said Cathy Boehme, a retired teacher and legislative specialist for FEA. “You’re saying funding matters. You’re saying good strategies matter. And then you turn around and keep those strategies from schools that you could save.” (Cathy Boehme quoted)

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