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More Choice?

The House Education committee heard a presentation from Adam Miller, Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice within the Department of Education. Miller began his presentation focused on the voucher programs in Florida, their history, rapid increase in participation and the number of students currently using a private school voucher.

Here’s some data to think about: More than 370,000 students are receiving vouchers to attend religious and private schools, with the majority getting Florida Tax Credit vouchers — 108,098. Under the McKay program, 31,044 students are receiving a voucher, while the Gardiner voucher goes to 10,258.

Two new vouchers were approved in the 2018 session: the reading voucher and the Hope voucher for students who say they have been bullied. The Hope voucher program has siphoned off more than $8.9 million in auto sales tax revenue since July 1, gotten only 127 applicants and issued 66 vouchers as of January 9. The $500 reading voucher intended for students with low reading scores, has awarded 4,500 of the 19,000 vouchers available based on funding appropriated from the Legislature.

Miller also reported that the number of students attending a charter school has risen now to 11 percent of the total school population. He also reported that there are 621 charter schools to 3,001 traditional public schools. Interesting factoid to store for later as charter schools gets a lopsided three times the amount of capital outlay funding, which was not mentioned.

Lastly, Miller shared that more than 262,000 students have taken advantage of open enrollment, which means they are currently attending a public school that they are not zoned to attend.

Shut down UCF?

The idea to shut down the University of Central Florida – the state’s largest public university with more than 68,000 students — was floated during the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee meeting by committee chair Rep. Randy Fine (R-Palm Bay).  Fine’s comments were in response to the UCF’s use of nearly $38 million in operating funds for a building construction project, he was “working on a five or 10-year shutdown of the university.”

UCF’s former administration erred in spending operating funds on construction, which is restricted by state law — but there is more to this story and part of it lies with the continued underfunding of public education and construction funding not keeping up with need.

Public Education Capital Outlay funds (aka PECO) are dedicated to construction and maintenance projects for public schools. PECO is funded by taxes we pay on utilities including electricity, telecommunications and cable. Over the years as telecommunication tax collections has fallen along with the decrease in the number of land line phones, and other factors.

The bottom line is university and college administrators are faced with the dilemma of aging facilities and the lack of available construction funds while legislators continue to ignore the funding needs of our schools, colleges and universities.

Certainly, UCF officials did not adhere to the law and they will feel the repercussions of that decision. But they are not the only ones between a rock and a hard place in this funding quandary. The University of South Florida has admitted to misappropriating some operating funds for building and construction projects as well.

But none of this excuses Chair Fine’s reckless proposal to close the school which would disenfranchise the students and employees one of the largest universities in the country.

Teachers, locked and loaded

Today during the Senate Education Committee senators discussed and passed SPB 7030. This bill would remove the prohibition against classroom teachers’ participation in the Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program. The Guardian Program was created as part of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Safety Act (SB 7026) passed in 2018. If passed, school districts could request educators and school personnel to volunteer to be trained to carry a firearm for the express purpose of engaging an active shooter on campus.

Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boynton Beach) attempted to amend the bill to restore the prohibition of classroom teachers from being eligible to volunteer.  The amendment failed on a party-line vote. FEA was joined at the podium in support of the Berman amendment by several speakers, including two classroom teachers and students with Mom’s Demand Action, the Florida PTA and the League of Women Voters.

We thank Sens. Berman, Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) and Bill Montford (D-Tallahassee) for speaking out in opposition to classroom teachers being asked to carry firearms to protect their students and ultimately voting in opposition to SPB 7030. However, the bill passed on a party-line 5-3 vote. The bill was introduced as a committee bill, and we now wait to see what other committees of reference it will receive in the Senate and whether a companion committee bill will be filed in the House.

Dollars… $91.3 billion of them actually

As required by law, Gov. Ron DeSantis released his budget proposal — a whopping $91.3 billion annual budget full of some pretty radical funding ideas. For those who are playing along at home, you might remember that the current fiscal year budget is actually about $2.5 billion (give or take) less than what is being proposed for the spending package for next year. The governor’s budget package includes the following:

  • Increases per-student funding by $224.40
  • Of that increase, $50 is Base Student Allocation (compared to 47 cents from last year)
  • $422 million allocation in the FEFP (the main education budget) for teachers and principals (no program details yet, so no delineation on bonuses versus actual salary increases)
  • Teacher classroom supply allocation remains same as last year
  • Funding compression allocation is removed (which mainly rewarded small counties by taking funding from big counties)
  • Mental health allocation increases by $10 million
  • Safe schools allocation increases by $50 million

Now some of the bad news: Construction and maintenance dollars (referred to as capital outlay or PECO funds) for charter schools are more than what is allocated for neighborhood public schools, colleges and universities combined. Not to mention that instead of capturing the much needed tax on construction of new homes as well as the increased property values of homes and businesses (which is projected to be $514 million this year), DeSantis proposes to roll back the mileage rate, capping how much tax can be collected off the natural growth in property values.

Remember we have a LONG way to go in this budget process. The first step is the governor RECOMMENDS a budget. The second step is the Legislature CREATES and passes a budget. Then the governor gets to decide whether what he proposed is more important than what the Legislature passed and sent to him. That’s when the true rubber meets the road.

Is the Senate really ready to have the arming teachers fight … again?

It comes as no surprise that the legislature would waste little time introducing legislation after hearing about the implementation of SB 7026 – the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Act passed last session – and the MSD Public Safety Commission’s 99 recommendations for improving the legislation.

This week the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Sen. Manny Diaz (R-Hialeah Gardens) released SPB 7030, a proposed committee bill that will allow for classroom teachers to be armed.  SPB 7030 will be heard by the Senate Education Committee at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12.

The committee room will be packed. The Moms Demand Action Group was busy this week in the halls talking to lawmakers, and they are standing with FEA – only trained law enforcement should be carrying weapons on campus. We expect the Senate Education Committee to be a sea of red shirts Tuesday.

We encourage you to take a look at the members on the Senate Education Committee [  ]  and, if your senator is on this committee, please call their office at home or in Tallahassee. Tell the aide who answers the phone that you support only trained law enforcement personnel carrying weapons on campus. Classroom teachers and education support professionals are hired to educate, not carry weapons.

School choice again focus of PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee

The PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee heard presentations on public school choice options. Appearing before the committee were representatives of Citrus, Osceola, Seminole and Miami-Dade County school boards. The committee also heard from DOE’s Office of School Choice.

Legislators on the committee were informed that traditional public school students fared better than their counterparts who attend privately operated charter schools. Also, the graduation rate of students completing traditional public schools was higher than the graduation percentages of students attending privately operated charter schools.

Chair Massullo (R-Beverly Hills) asked the panel if there were concerns about the current school choice policy. The panel all agreed that charter schools’ unrestricted right to build a school at any location is a serious problem on multiple levels for school districts.

“We don’t build a school where there isn’t a need. Charter schools, on the other hand, build wherever they like, and that makes things very difficult. Sometimes right across the street from a traditional public school,” said Dr. Sylvia Diaz, assistant superintendent of Miami-Dade Public Schools. She went on to say, “We can absolutely compete with charter schools, as long as there is an even playing field.”

What remains to be seen is whether this panel presentation will sway legislators from passing more so-called “school choice” legislation that further gives charter schools and private schools who accept vouchers an advantage, while making it harder for public schools to operate in Florida.

Arming teachers?

During the 2018 legislative session, the Legislature passed SB 7026, which was hastily cobbled together in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. One of the more controversial components of the legislation was whether to arm classroom teachers. Despite opposition from FEA, parent groups and even the education commissioner and governor, the legislation created the “Guardian” program, which allows voluntary non-instructional school personnel to be trained to carry a concealed weapon in order to protect against an active shooter situation.

The House Education Committee and Senate Education Committee this week heard presentations from Bob Gualtieri, Pinellas County sheriff and head of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission, regarding the 482-page report on the findings on the school shooting, including 99 recommendations from the commission on ways to improve school safety and mitigate future mass shootings. One of these recommendations is to expand the “Guardian” program to include teachers who wish to volunteer to concealed carry.

As we have said in the past, FEA’s position remains that only trained law enforcement personnel should carry weapons on campus, and we will continue to advocate for that position this coming session as well.

House Education Committee meeting

The House Education Committee also met this week to discuss the framework of the committee. Chaired by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, this committee now lacks some of our champions for public education.

For the first meeting of the House Education Committee, all three subcommittees met together for a very brief overview of the division of the policy areas in the Department of Education. Sullivan asked the committee to consider three very important questions when constituents and lobbyists come calling. The questions are important for us, as activists, to consider as well.

  1. What is the problem to solve or behavior to change?
  2. Who is responsible for solving the problem?
  3. Is this an issue that is confined to one school, a few schools or a few school districts?

Finally, she suggested that not every problem requires legislation, and legislation can cause unintended consequences.

Senate Education Committee meeting

This week the Senate Education Committee met to hear presentations on the implementation of SB 7026, legislation passed in 2018 in response to the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The committee is chaired by Sen. Manny Diaz, whom you remember is the former PreK-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee chair and a staunch defender of charter schools and vouchers.

Suwannee and Polk County superintendents made presentations on their implementations of the controversial Guardian Program, which trains volunteers in protecting a school in the event of an armed shooter. The Department of Education reports that 25 sheriffs have agreed to train guardians. Suwannee and Polk superintendents talked about their strict screening process for volunteers, which is done in conjunction with the local sheriff’s office.

The Department of Education presentation and Diaz made it clear that legislation is needed and will be coming in the near future to amend SB 7026, and that the Senate committee will consider some or all of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission’s recommendations. One of those recommendations is to arm classroom teachers. FEA’s position remains that only trained law enforcement should be carrying weapons on campus, and we will continue to advocate for that position this coming session.

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