Lawmakers revive, then approve school voucher expansion
A surprise procedural maneuver Friday helped Florida lawmakers pass one of the most controversial bills of the session. Both the House and Senate gave final approval to a bill that would expand the school voucher program and create new scholarships for special-needs children. The proposal will now head to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it. School choice advocates celebrated bill's passage -- an unexpected end to a roller-coaster session. "The House has made school choice a priority this year for Florida families," said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who championed the bill. "With this bill, more kids will have the opportunity to reach their full potential." Joanne McCall, vice president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers' union, said she was disappointed. "The members of FEA are chagrined by the continued march to expand voucher schools that are largely unregulated, don't have to follow the state's academic standards, don't have to hire qualified teachers and don't have to prove to the state that they are using public money wisely," she said. McCall said it was "especially galling that the voucher expansion was tacked on to an unrelated bill on the final day of the session." The bill that passed Friday (SB 850) would expand Florida's Tax Credit Scholarship Program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families. It would not raise the cap on the number of corporate income tax credits available to businesses that help fund the scholarships or allow donors to receive sales tax credits. But it would allow more students to take part in the program by creating partial scholarships for children from higher-income families, and removing some of the barriers to participating. The proposal also would place new restrictions on Step Up for Students, the nonprofit that manages the voucher program. Step Up for Students would be required to undergo an annual audit from the state Auditor General and would be prohibited from using state dollars for lobbying or political purposes. A separate part of the bill addresses special needs students. It would eliminate the special diplomas that are offered as an alternative to standard diplomas, and create "personal learning scholarship accounts" to reimburse the parents of special-needs students for private-school tuition, tutoring and different types of therapies. The language was important to incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and key to the bill's Senate passage. The proposed policy sparked one of the most heated debates of the session. The state PTA, teachers union and school districts had come together to fight the bill, saying state dollars should stay with traditional public schools.
Florida Education Association Vice President Joanne McCall criticized the Legislature for approving the expansion. The association represents Florida's teachers. "There's no conclusive evidence that vouchers improve the achievement of students who use them to attend private school," McCall said. "Yet the Legislature continues to expand voucher schools instead of providing proper funding for our neighborhood public schools."
FEA: Corporate vouchers don’t deserve expansion (Joanne McCall quoted)
Legislature approves budget and ends session
Florida lawmakers adjourned their 2014 election-year session late Friday, approving in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, legalizing a strain of marijuana for limited medical use and expanding corporate tax credits that allow poor children to go to private schools. They also overhauled child protection laws, allowed a noncitizen to practice law, banned sales of e-cigarettes to minors and set up a pecking order for sales tax rebates for sports stadiums, including a possible major league soccer facility in Miami. In a session aimed at shoring up Gov. Rick Scott’s re-election prospects, Republicans stayed on course. They rolled back car tag fees, pumped more money into public education and used the immigrant tuition issue to appeal to disaffected Hispanics whose votes are vital to Scott’s political future. As the night dragged on and lawmakers sipped from white foam cups, they adopted a $77.1 billion budget — the largest in state history. It’s fortified by more than $1.2 billion in extra sales tax revenue from a surging economy that will increase school spending by 2.6 percent next year. The budget spends $18.9 billion on public schools, the most ever and an increase of $176 per student, to $6,937. That’s still below the record 2008 level of $7,126 per pupil. Democrats said the Republicans’ signature failure was their refusal for the second consecutive year to consider an expansion of Medicaid in a state that ranks second to Texas in the number of people with no health insurance. As the last day of lawmaking got underway, a group of clergy, single moms and others issued a call for action, but the issue was dead before the session began. “The Legislature turned its back on those who work hard but cannot afford proper healthcare,” said the Rev. Brant Copeland, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Tallahassee. “We’re not going to forget. We think the Legislature can do better.”
Teachers' salaries are far too low
Walton district and union hold impasse hearing (Sandra Butler quoted)
Hillsborough school bus system needs millions in investments, consultant says
State DOE sets deadlines for new testing
With FCAT nearly over for good, Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart has released a timeline for launching the state's next standardized tests. Many school district leaders and educators have questioned whether the state can appropriately prepare for a spring 2015 administration of the American Institutes for Research assessments, which have yet to be written. But Stewart has steadfastly maintained that the transition will go smoothly. Her memo to superintendents outlines dates for when resources will be available to schools. A schedule of computerized tests would be delivered this month under the plan, while policies for the math tests and sample questions would come in June and scoring guidelines for written responses would be released in July. "Sample test questions and the test item specifications... will be released as preliminary documents and will be expanded and updated at a later date following the initial release." she wrote. See the document here.
Teach for America: Is the magic gone?
Immigrant instate tuition bill heads to the governor's desk
Florida's step forward for immigrants
Legislature fails to tackle Florida's biggest issues
Scott gets tax cut package on session's last day
Sports stadium tax breaks bill headed to Scott
Florida legislators send child protection overhaul to governor
Jump in payrolls is seen as a sign of new optimism
Government nurtures innovation