Today's news -- May 8, 2017




What's $419 million and 278 pages? That education bill *

A swift outcry of condemnation came over the weekend from many parents, teachers and school administrators who want the Legislature to reject a $419 million, 278-page K-12 public schools bill -- which was decided behind closed doors, which lawmakers cannot change and which they'll have had only about 72 hours to review when they vote today. House and Senate members will decide the fate of HB 7069 as part of several up-or-down votes on a 2017-18 budget package. The Legislature extended its annual session until 11:59 p.m. today with the intent of passing an $82.4 billion spending plan, its single constitutional obligation. Public education advocates, like the Florida PTA and other groups, and superintendents -- including Miami-Dade County Public Schools chief Alberto Carvalho -- aim to convince their elected representatives to vote "no." Such an outcome is unlikely but not unprecedented, and it would potentially call the entire budget into question because of the major dollars attached. "I've spoken to so many senators -- both parties -- who are opposed to so many portions of that bill," Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, said. "The question is: Will they have the fortitude to vote no?" HB 7069 stands to massively reform K-12 public education in Florida through myriad proposals gleaned from at least 55 House and Senate bills filed this session, as well as language never before discussed or considered publicly or -- in one case -- that was already defeated by a Senate committee, an analysis found. House Speaker Richard Corcoran's office issued a statement, along with answers in response to two dozen questions, saying: "Negotiating solutions when there are significant differences between the two chambers on an issue in conference sometimes requires adding new language and bringing in issues that were not part of the budget conference. That is often what it takes to reach agreement and is inherent to the conference process." The mammoth bill covers everything from phonics education and students' sunscreen use, to testing reforms and virtual learning. Its signature provisions are:

• $234 million in guaranteeing teacher bonuses for the next several years.

• $140 million for "Schools of Hope" charter giveaway to help perpetually failing traditional schools and to entice specialized, privately managed charter schools to compete in those mostly low-income neighborhoods.

• A formula that forces school districts to share with charter schools millions in local tax revenue earmarked for school projects.

It also would regulate how Title I federal dollars are distributed, which Carvalho said could "undermine support for fragile schools." Critics say the bill isn't all bad, but they objected to how the rewrite of HB 7069 abruptly surfaced Friday and that so much unrelated education policy will rise or fall by a single vote. The legislation was negotiated in private with no chance for public input, cobbled together at the insistence of Corcoran as a condition of budget talks, and not released until Friday evening -- blind-siding parents, education stakeholders and most lawmakers, even those involved in offering input behind the scenes. But it's the wide-ranging contents of the legislation itself that has vocal opponents, like Carvalho, most concerned. "We're being asked to basically accept an ounce of honey in exchange for a gallon of vinegar," Carvalho said Sunday, as he vowed the Miami-Dade school district -- Florida's largest and the fourth largest school district in the country -- would "spare no effort" to voice its objections on HB 7069 and the sparse increase to overall education spending in the budget. To counter the criticism, House Republicans launched a coordinated social media campaign to promote HB 7069 — with some materials released before it was officially agreed to at a brief public hearing Friday night between Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "I think that is going to go down as one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida," Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, told reporters afterward, dismissing the lack of transparency in how the bill came together and rejecting that it included policies not yet vetted by lawmakers. One of the only groups to praise the bill is the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a group of 50 members statewide that quickly heralded HB 7069 as "a quantum leap forward in student-centered education." (Negron's wife, Rebecca, is a Martin County School Board member and on the coalition's board of directors; the group's past president Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member, is the wife of Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples.) The Times/Herald identified several examples within HB 7069 of not only new policy but also language substantively different than what lawmakers previously discussed in public hearings this spring. For instance, the bill restricts local governments' ability to regulate "student enrollment and occupant load" of charter schools, in addition to the previously discussed exemptions charter schools would get from local zoning regulations. A provision to require daily school recess suddenly exempts charter schools, too -- something parent advocates and the original bill sponsors were stunned to discover. The fact that recess was in the budget bill at all disappointed many parents. "They feel like recess was just kind of this very nice, sweet, pure movement -- it was something for the kids -- and they feel like it was just used in a mean way, a nasty way, as political leverage," Miami parent Kate Asturias said Sunday. Among the most substantive changes from past discussions, the final compromise on a plan to expand bonuses for teachers and principals calls for an awards structure and time-line that differs from what lawmakers contemplated in public hearings. As introduced in March, the House's proposed expansion of its "Best & Brightest" program was to include principals and broaden the criteria for which teachers could qualify for awards of up to $10,000 -- addressing two years of complaints that the bonuses unfairly linked a teacher's high school SAT/ACT scores to their ability to be "highly effective" in the classroom. Now, HB 7069 keeps intact the beleaguered program for another three years under the same conditions but with the addition of bonuses for top principals. It delays any new qualifying criteria until 2021 and, in the mean time, caps the teacher bonus at $6,000. About 7,200 teachers this year received $6,800 bonuses, a decrease in award amount from the $8,200 given out per recipient in the program's first year in 2015.) Meanwhile, House Republicans tout a new addition to the compensation program: Bonuses for almost all teachers in the 2017, 2018 and 2019 school years. They advertise the bonuses as a guaranteed $1,200 for teachers rated "highly effective" and $800 for teachers rated "effective"; however, the bill includes a caveat that the $800 awards could be pro-rated depending on the amount of money made available by the Legislature. Corcoran's office did not respond to a request for a breakdown -- or answer whether one had been done -- of how many teachers and principals might qualify for the "Best and Brightest" awards next year, as well as the number of "highly effective" and "effective" teachers who might get the general bonus. In the 2015-16 school year, 75,800 classroom teachers earned "highly effective" marks, while 85,900 were declared "effective." The Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, remains opposed to the "Best and Brightest" program even under HB 7069 -- favoring actual pay increases for teachers, not bonuses that aren't assured year after year.


Superintendents speak out against education budget


State bills, budget in hands of Scott today *

To the extent that any legislative session is remembered, the 2017 edition might be remembered as much for what lawmakers didn’t do as for what they did. Supposedly must-pass bills on workers’ compensation and medical marijuana turned out not to be as must-pass as originally thought. A gambling bill that lawmakers said was closer to becoming law than ever before? Dead long before lawmakers stopped work Friday night on most issues. And, most prominently, the nearly $83 billion spending plan for the year that begins July 1 remains unapproved. The Legislature will return today to vote on the budget and a package of related bills. By the end of Friday, the House and Senate had passed 231 bills. That’s the same number approved by lawmakers during the 2015 regular session, which blew up with the House going home three days early. No other session since 1998 has passed fewer than 264 bills. Not everyone is dismayed by that turn of events. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said Friday night that passing a small amount of legislation could be a good thing. “What we do way too much of is all this other stuff on the periphery that really doesn’t have any kind of a dramatic effect on people’s lives. ... We come up here and work deals for the special interests and we pass all the special-interest bills. So, yeah, I think when you constrain the number of bills, I think it says that the focus was on doing the people’s will and not the special interests’ will,” Corcoran said. And some of what lawmakers did pass could still be undone by Gov. Rick Scott. The governor’s budget priorities were almost universally rejected in the final agreement, leading to speculation he might veto the entire budget — an extraordinarily rare move. And even if he signs the overall spending plan, Scott could use his line-item veto to strike specific projects dear to top lawmakers, or wield his veto pen against policy bills. A Legislature that did historically little could end the year with even fewer concrete accomplishments. Despite Corcoran’s attempts to portray the failed bills as little more than the checklists of powerful interests, at least one measure watched outside the Tallahassee bubble died on the last day: a bill to implement the medical marijuana constitutional amendment approved by voters last year. Even that, though, was undermined by a fight in the shadows over control of the state’s potentially lucrative marijuana industry. The key fight: how many pot dispensaries the state should have. The final House version of the legislation (HB 1397) would have imposed a cap of 100 retail outlets for each of the state’s medical marijuana operators — down from an unlimited number in an earlier bill. The Senate had proposed a cap of 10, at least for the time being. With the failure of the House and Senate to reach agreement, state health officials will be responsible for putting the amendment in place. “The Legislature at some point in time needs to have a bill that implements Amendment 2. It’s disappointing that we didn’t get it done this session,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican who spearheaded the bill in the Senate. “We just couldn’t bridge the gap, and that just happens sometimes.” Lawmakers also couldn’t bridge a gap Friday night on closely watched legislation aimed at holding down workers’ compensation insurance rates. A cap was at issue in that case, as well; this time, it was a limit on attorney fees. The House proposed capping attorney fees at a maximum of $150 an hour, while the Senate proposed $250 an hour. In a last-ditch bid for an agreement, the House upped its proposal to $180 an hour, but the Senate adjourned Friday night without considering it.


Why are state lawmakers still in Tallahassee?


If Scott vetoes budget, Corcoran says they have votes to override


Lawmakers OK expansion to school voucher programs

Lawmakers on Friday signed off on significant expansions to two of Florida's voucher programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children afford private school. Senators approved HB 15 by a 27-11 vote, with four Democrats joining Republicans in support. The House approved the same language by a 101-11 vote later in the day with little discussion, sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott's desk on the final day lawmakers could approve policy issues this session. The bill's passage marks another session victory for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes. Corcoran opened the 2017 session by prioritizing, in particular, growing the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which is facilitated almost entirely by a single organization that is led by an influential and wealthy school choice advocate. The scholarship aids mostly low-income, minority families by giving dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate money, which then pays for private school scholarships. HB 15 calls for raising the amounts for the tax credit awards so that families can stay in the program when their children advance to high school, where private education is more expensive. Several Democratic senators said they didn't want to "divert" more dollars to the tax credits — dollars they argue could otherwise go to improving K-12 public schools — but they struggled with voting "no" because they do support the Gardiner Scholarship to help children with disabilities. By putting the programs in a single bill, House Republicans linked the expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship to that of the tax-credit awards — meaning lawmakers could not expand one voucher program without the other. The Senate wanted to decide on expanding each program through separate legislation, but the chamber agreed this week to take the House version. Proponents of the bill defended against the criticism of the tax credit scholarships, which this year paid for the private education of 97,000 students whose families' household income is, on average, slightly above the poverty level. About 69 percent of the student participants are black or Hispanic. The 11 "no" votes in the House were all Democrats. Tampa venture capitalist John Kirtley, who fought for lawmakers to create the tax-credit program more than 15 years ago, is chairman of Step Up for Students, the main organization that now distributes the scholarships.


Six reasons vouchers don’t help students, families, communities


Recess parents say lawmakers are using kids as pawns *
Passionate parents, like Kate Asturias of Miami and Angela Browning of Orlando, have been fighting for years to get guaranteed daily recess for their children and the more than 1.2 million other kids in Florida’s public elementary schools. The two moms trekked to Tallahassee on Friday, for the countless time, hoping to see lawmakers finally make that happen. They left disappointed once again. The favored proposal of “recess moms” and dads that unanimously passed the Senate a month ago (SB 78) wasn’t brought to the floor by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, before Friday’s session deadline -- despite parents’ numerous emails and phone calls urging him to take up the bill, which had the votes to pass easily. Instead, Corcoran prolonged a conclusion to the recess proposal by lumping it — with a never-before-seen exemption parents didn’t ask for -- into a 278-page education budget bill released Friday evening, three days before lawmakers will vote today on an annual budget package they can’t change. Filled with disappointment and anger, parents vented their frustration in social media groups this weekend — and some now have a message for their lawmakers: Don’t vote “yes” on this bill just so Florida’s kids can be assured recess. “This is not just about recess anymore. This bill is a mishmash of some policies that have never even been vetted before,” Browning wrote Saturday night to parents in the “Recess for All Florida Students” group on Facebook. “It’s not how the process is supposed to work. The people, and those they elected to represent them, are supposed to be involved in the process. A conforming bill dropped after 4 p.m. on the last day of session, with no amendments permitted and an up or down vote, is no way to govern. “We can’t expect legislators to support it based solely on their support for recess,” she said. Asturias, of the “Recess for Miami Students” group, noted that the new recess language is seven lines out of 6,848 in the bill, and “I understand.” “It’s so disappointing that our kids were used in this way, and the message of recess and what it stood for was used ... as political cover,” she said. Parents “feel like recess was just kind of this very nice, sweet, pure movement — it was something for the kids — and they feel like it was just used in a mean way, a nasty way, as political leverage.”


Legislature owes Floridians more apologies *

They should apologize to teachers, students and their families for micromanaging and financially starving public schools. Local school districts would get a token increase in per student spending while taxes are being cut and more than $1 billion is being socked away in state reserves. They would get even less money for maintenance and construction than last year, and privately run charter schools that enroll a fraction of the students would get the same amount. Meanwhile, Hillsborough County students sit in hot classrooms because the air conditioning is broken, and the school district can't pay for dozens of new schools it will need in the coming years to accommodate growth. Yet House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, insisted on $200 million to attract charter schools that would essentially replace struggling public schools, and voucher programs were expanded to send more poor kids and kids with disabilities to private schools.


Lawmakers want you to pray

Just what we need — something more for teachers and school administrators to do, while taking away from their main task. Their main job is teaching kids, in case you forgot. Obviously the Florida Legislature forgot. Or doesn't care. Our lawmakers passed a bill that, starting on July 1, would prohibit Florida public school districts "from discrimination against students, parents & school personnel on basis of religious viewpoints or expression." Translation: Prayer in school is back. Lawmakers aren't content to let kids practice religion in their home or their house of worship, which is where religion should be practiced. No, now we'll have it in school. Despite the efforts of lawmakers like Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, and others, who tried extremely hard to get the bill modified and made more palatable. Why students have to pray in school in beyond me, other than if they think they are failing a test. But now, students will be able to deliver "inspirational messages" at public events. This sets up a lot of extra work for teachers. It could create very uncomfortable situations for students of varying religions.  It could open the door for those who believe in witchcraft and the like to demand equal time in schools. And it will definitely open up the path to lawsuits. Why? Because North Florida religious zealots think there isn't enough God in our schools. So they convinced our legislators to come up with this bill, which is really going to create a mess. Trust me, this bill will lead to bullying and intolerance in school. It will lead to students feeling alienated. It will lead to lawsuits. All in the name of God.


Parents and citizens may get a bigger say over school textbooks (Mark Pudlow quoted)


Al Capone would have killed for tax dodger Fresen’s sweet plea deal


Fake news from the state about charter “success” (Karla Hernandez-Mats quoted)


Get ready for another Jeb Bush charter hoax


Poll: Americans favor charter schools -- but not at public schools' expense


Charter school vulnerabilities to waste, fraud and abuse


Palm Beach teachers union gets new president (Justin Katz quoted and Gordan Longhofer mentioned)


Manatee School Board to discuss increase in millage rate (Pat Barber quoted)


Alachua Council of PTAs wraps up first year rechartered (ACEA mentioned)


Leon schools work to acclimate, embrace refugee children


Miami-Dade schools chief explores run for Ros-Lehtinen's seat


Computer-based education as a depersonalized and profitable industry


America’s most challenging high schools


South Carolina: School calls police on parent who wanted his son to opt out


Ohio charter tells staff it must attend rally


California: How the charter school association bought power with money


Puerto Rico to close 184 public schools amid crisis


College foundations hit hard by bill tied to budget

University and state college foundations would be prohibited from using public funds to pay for their employees beginning in 2022 and would face more disclosure requirements under an agreement reached Friday by legislative leaders. The foundation language is part of a broader higher-education bill (SB 374) linked to a nearly $83 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The bill includes an array of major policy changes for the 12 state universities and 28 state colleges. The bill would require universities to offer block tuition, where students pay a flat fee per semester rather than a credit-hour charge, by the fall of 2018. It would create a 13-member Board of Community Colleges to oversee the state college system, which is now under the Board of Education. It also would cap enrollment for students pursuing four-year degrees at state colleges to no more than 15 percent of the total enrollment at each school. Universities would be held to a new performance standard, measuring the schools on their ability to graduate students in four years, rather than the current six-year standard. The agreement on university and college foundations is a modification of a House proposal that would have immediately prohibited the use of public employees or public funding in the largely private foundations, which are also known as direct-support organizations. Universities are currently spending about $53 million to support foundation personnel, while state colleges are spending $9.9 million. Under the agreement, they will have five years to end that practice. In addition, the bill would immediately prohibit the use of state funds for travel by the organizations and would require disclosure of all expenditures involving public funds and the disclosure of all travel expenditures involving private funds. The House originally sought a fuller disclosure of all expenditures and activity by the foundations, with the exception of the identities of private donors. House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, called the compromise a significant advancement in transparency for the direct-support organizations. “Is it where we wanted to go? We would like to go even further,” Corcoran said. “But to move that along to the extent that we have and to have that accountability for the first time is something that is remarkable.”


Education cuts wrong, unnecessary


College leaders: Education increases should be spread across K-12, higher ed


USF to lose out on millions because of last-minute bill change


FIU, Miami Dade Community College among big winners in state budget


FAMU presidential search will be tricky


Community to meet finalists for Polk State College president’s job


More outrage over DeVos visit to Bethune-Cookman (Fedrick Ingram quoted)


Trump questions whether funding source for HBCUs is constitutional


Students, faculty wait to see how Georgia’s newest gun law takes shape


The wrong way to fix student debt


Imagine a better life without a Legislature

House Speaker Richard Corcoran began the 2017 Florida legislative session by questioning the wisdom and the need to continue funding the state's tourism agency. To hear Corcoran explain it, money was being wasted, accountability did not exist and the state would get along just fine without so many slackers at Visit Florida. What puzzles me is why Corcoran stopped there. If his goal was to root out the tone deaf and the useless in Tallahassee, the past few weeks have revealed an even more obvious target for elimination. Why not get rid of the state Legislature? Not the whole thing, of course. Corcoran is clearly the most powerful man in the state, so he has reason to stay. Sen. Jack Latvala and a handful of others have some influence, so they should have a place, too. But that leaves 150 or so other lawmakers who are doing nothing but killing time before Happy Hour. No offense, but what good are they? Just to be clear, that's a serious question. I might be offering a silly solution, but that doesn't mean the underlying point isn't valid. Consider the evidence:

1. Once again, the Legislature failed to come up with a new plan for gambling in Florida. If you're counting, this is the third consecutive session that lawmakers have been talking about revamping an agreement with the Seminole Tribe and yet have accomplished squat. Not that it's important, or anything. It's only a billion-dollar industry. While we're at it, the Legislature also failed to address a workers' compensation issue that is supposedly a crisis. And Florida remains one of the rare states without a meaningful driving-while-texting law. And the implementation of the medical marijuana amendment, which should have been a slam dunk since two dozen other states have already blazed that path, was never completed. Oh, and by the way, we're still waiting for that Florida version of expanded Medicaid that Corcoran promised a few years ago. These are basic issues. Critical issues. And yet this Legislature is too inept to do its job.

2. More than ever, legislators have proven to be a spineless group of lemmings. Other than a handful of rare exceptions, these people are either too scared or too dim-witted to think for themselves. Republicans are lap dogs for Corcoran, and Democrats seem to think whining is an actual strategy. Neither party has enough independent thinkers.

3. The most important thing they do — the one thing they are required by law to do — was apparently done without the input of 99 percent of the legislators. The budget was hammered out in private with negotiators from the House and the Senate, while the rank-and-file tried not to look like wallflowers. It's almost comical when you think about it. The Legislature is set up to create autocratic leaders who can make or break careers. So that means the most feared man in government is not the governor in 2017, but the House speaker. Corcoran has never topped 10,000 votes in his own Pasco County district, and yet has 20 million Florida residents at his mercy. So we are left with legislators who pander on gun bills, posture on education reform and ultimately whistle and turn their heads as party leaders tell them how they should vote on every issue. If that's the best we're going to get out of our Legislature, we could probably save a lot of money and embarrassment by just telling them to stay at home. The only downside is we'd have to look elsewhere for guaranteed laughs.


Legislature officially in overtime


Ten big issues for today’s legislative session


Scott presses for more tourism funds


Visit Florida deal paid TV fishing show producer $2.8 million in taxpayers' money


Corcoran commands the regular session, but will Scott have his revenge?


Corcoran and his fight for "soul of the party."


Winners, losers during the 2017 legislative session


Tax savings for voters means cost cutting for county -- or tax hikes


Legislature blatantly undermines local governments


Term limits will only diminish state’s judiciary


Florida lawmakers fail to reach deal on workers’ comp


Florida Chamber and allies unload on Senate for skipping AOB reform this year


Florida set to change burden of proof in “stand your ground”


Legislature wants markers to acknowledge reform school horrors


Slavery memorial won't happen this year


Tougher fentanyl possession penalties head to Scott


Trump proposes steep cuts to White House “drug czar” office amid opioid crisis


Medical marijuana bill goes up in smoke


Morgan and other medical pot supporters call for special session


Bill requiring quick notice of environmental accidents passes in wake of Mosaic spill


Florida Forever? More like Florida Never after Legislature zeroes out program


Trump puts Gulf drilling protections at risk


Offshore drilling opponents gear up for Gulf fight


With passage of reservoir bill, Legislature's focus turns to Washington


What Negron gave away for reservoir to curb Lake Okeechobee discharges


Smaller South Florida reservoir still worth the effort


Trump's healthcare bill will kill some, and enrich others


The House health care disaster is really about taxes


Health act repeal could threaten U.S. job engine


Who gets hurt -- and when -- if Trumpcare becomes law


GOP never intended to protect preexisting conditions


GOP plan to protect sick people has a long history of not protecting sick people


Trump says Obamacare is broken. He’s the one who broke it.


Trump: Hazardous to our health


The GOP’s hypocrisy is damaging our health-care system

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