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Private school voucher bill scaled back again to woo Senate

Wednesday, April 9th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A measure beefing-up the state’s private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush was reworked again Wednesday by the House in a bid to reach accord with a resistent Senate.

The legislation (HB 7167) was amended by House sponsor Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, to eliminate a proposed expansion of the dollar caps that limit the growth of the program.

The bill now maintains the current caps that allow annual 25 percent increases from the current $286 million in tax credits, which pays for almost 60,000 low-income students to attend 1,400, mostly faith-based private schools.

Facing earlier opposition, Diaz has already dropped an initial plan to allow companies to steer a portion of their state sales-tax obligation to the program.

The Tax Credit Scholarship Program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance private school scholarships for children from low-income households.

While scaled-back, the House proposal does continue to expand the pool of students who could be eligible for taxpayer scholarships. House Republicans also beat back Democratic efforts to require that these private-school students undergo standardized testing like that in public schools.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has said he won’t go along with any expansion for the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program without a testing provision — and his son, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, broke party ranks to join Democrats in those losing votes on the House floor.

The younger Gaetz’s stand may signal that the bill still faces a stern test in the Senate, which earlier dropped any plans to consider an expansion bill unless mandatory testing was included.

Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, defended maintaining a distinction between the taxpayer-funded private school students and those who go to public schools.

“Why would we want to make it look just like the school that didn’t work for these children?” Adkins said.

While close to 60,000 students received scholarships this year, demand is much greater, with almost 94,000 applications made by families, according to Step Up for Students, the Tampa-based nonprofit which administers the program.

The nonprofit also says scholarship students are subject to testing, with most taking Stanford Achievement tests at private schools.

Step Up for Students, this year can collect 3 percent for administrative costs, or $8.6 million. And with the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, Step Up for Students would be poised to collect $26.2 million that year for office costs and salaries – an amount ridiculed Wednesday by Democrats.

 

House throws a ‘Hail Mary,’ critics say, in keeping vouchers alive

Friday, March 28th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A House push to expand the state’s controversial, private-school voucher program was repackaged Friday in an effort to win over a resistant state Senate in the session’s closing weeks.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee overhauled the voucher proposal and included in it changes that broaden the use of the state’s McKay Scholarship program for children with disabilities.

For the House and Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has promised a “massive expansion” of school choice this year, it’s a clear attempt to keep the expansion alive.

The McKay Scholarship changes are eagerly sought by Senate leaders and combining the two efforts is a tactical move by the House.

Still, while the House dropped its initial plan to allow sales tax dollars to flow to the voucher program for the first time, the new version does not add any school testing requirements. In withdrawing its Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program legislation last week, the Senate said it was because it failed to require student assessments similar to those in public schools.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who spearheaded the retooled legislation Friday, said the program has never demanded private school students to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and would not require them to take FCAT’s successor in the fall.

“You have voted for this program in the past,” Fresen told committee members opposing the legislation. “Nothing in this bill changes the level of accountability.”

But Rep. Karen Castor-Dentel, D-Orlando, said the proposal is a “massive expansion of private school vouchers.”

“We are giving up on our legislative responsibility to ensure that our children are learning,” she added, calling the rewrite a political “Hail Mary” for the troubled expansion effort.

The measure was approved Friday in a partyline vote, with Democrats opposed.

Joanne McCall, a vice-president of the Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, also condemned the tactical move by the House.

“I have to say as a teacher who taught disabled students daily, that this attempt to salvage expansion of the voucher program by attaching it to this bill is disingenuous to the public and to those of us who have dedicated our careers to working with students with disabilities,” McCall said.

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program is authorized to spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The initial House bill would have bolstered that by allowing companies to dedicate sales-tax dollars to scholarships.

The program’s funding has steadily climbed, with $357.8 million already the cap for scholarships next year. But the measure approved Friday increases that to  $903.8 million by 2018. The number of scholarships available will almost double.

Family income requirements also would be eased,  allowing more working-class families to qualify for the program, supporters said.

Meanwhile, the legislation continues to allow that 3 percent of the annual cap go toward administrative costs, a fee that allows Step Up for Students, a politically-connected Tampa-based nonprofit, to collect $8.6 million this year. When the program reaches its full capacity, Step Up could be collecting $26.2 million for expenses.

 

Senate panel wants 4-year degrees put on hold at state colleges

Thursday, March 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Senate budget-writers agreed Thursday to end a decade-long trend of expanding bachelor’s degree options at state colleges, saying the programs have proliferated and the current system no longer works.

Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said lawmakers were only pushing the “pause button” to take stock of how the college and university systems interlock. Under the legislation (CS/SB 1148), only the 175 four-year degree programs now in place at the 25 colleges offering them would continue.

The state Board of Education would be barred from offering any new B.A. degree programs until the Legislature decides differently.

“The Legislature is not getting in the business of deciding who gets a bachelor’s degree program,” Negron said. “We’re just saying we’re going to take a breath.”

The measure cleared the Appropriations Committee 18-1, with Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the lone opponent.

“Why should we be shutting the door on higher education?” Latvala said.

The Senate’s push for reining in college degree programs would be a major change of course in Florida and redirect a wave that began with St. Petersburg College offering the first bachelor’s degree programs in 2001 in nursing, education and information technology.

Since then, driven by state lawmakers and Florida’s largest business associations demanding a better trained workforce, 25 of the state’s 28 colleges have begun offering bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees.

Bachelor’s programs are now offered across Florida colleges, largely in career-oriented fields such as nursing, teaching, supply chain management and industrial logistics. Negron, though, pointed out that at least one school is offering degrees in biology, accounting and public administration — which puts them “into the lane of universities.”

Negron said it was time for lawmakers to reassess the trend, given the demands put on higher education spending.

Palm Beach State College offers three bachelor’s degrees, according to state education officials: in nursing, supervision and management, and information management.

St. Johns River State College President Joe Pickens, a former House member, told the committee that he understood its concerns, hinting that the push-back from lawmakers stems from missteps by some colleges.

“There is a failure to communicate,” Pickens said. “I hear you…you’ve got my attention.”

Weatherford’s “massive expansion” of school choice faces double-trouble

Tuesday, March 25th, 2014 by John Kennedy

The Florida Senate dealt House Speaker Will Weatherford another setback Tuesday, dramatically scaling-back legislation aimed at fostering the growth of more charter schools in the state.

The action by the Senate Education Committee came only days after senators withdrew plans to consider a bill eventually doubling the 60,000 students now receiving taxpayer-funded private school vouchers in Florida.

Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, promised a “massive expansion” of school choice by lawmakers this spring. But with lawmakers nearing the midpoint of the two-month session, the choice push has gotten beat back – at the hands of fellow Republicans in the Senate.

“This is a plan that is just not yet ready for prime time,” said Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, who said that he is a “charter fan.”

Legg is business manager for a charter school co-founded by his wife. But he said the House-backed proposal favored by charter school advocates went too far.

The legislation backed by charter advocates would have required school districts statewide to use a standard contract that would apply to all charter school governing boards. Districts also would be required to make available under-used buildings and classrooms for lease to charter operators.

Also, the pro-charter proposal would make it easier for “high-performing” charter school companies operating out-of-state to enter the Florida market and expand at-will once they are here.

While voucher expansion languishes, House gives charter schools more heft

Monday, March 24th, 2014 by John Kennedy

While efforts to expand private-school vouchers in Florida have stalled, a push by Republican leaders to help charter schools spread in the state continued to gain traction Monday.

The legislation, opposed by Palm Beach County and other school districts, cleared the House education-budget subcommittee in a party-line vote, with Democrats voting against the measure.

The charter school bill (HB 7083) is seen as a key part of a “massive expansion” of school choice promised this session by House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

“We’re trying to streamline the process so that we can get more quality educational opportunities available for our children across the state,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, sponsor of the measure.

But another proposal endorsed by Weatherford, aimed at doubling the 60,000 students now getting taxpayer money to attend private schools, looks endangered. The Senate last week withdrew its version of the legislation in a dispute over what kind of standardized tests these voucher students would take.

Last week’s blow-up heightens the stakes for reaching agreement this spring on the charter school proposal.

Full story here:   bit.ly/1m347Fd

Senate withdraws voucher bill, expansion plan looks dead

Thursday, March 20th, 2014 by John Kennedy

After promising a “massive expansion” of school choice options this session, House Speaker Will Weatherford retooled his rhetoric Thursday after the Senate dropped plans to take up a proposed build-up of the state’s private school voucher program.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he was withdrawing his version (SB 1620) of the voucher bill advancing in the House.  At least part of the dispute is rooted in Senate President Don Gaetz’s demand that students taking part in the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program undergo testing in private schools similar to that in public schools.

“It’s a shame. A terrible shame,” Weatherford said. “Thousands of children seeking more opportunities for a better life will be denied. I cannot see any reason why we’d quit on these kids.”

The bill (HB 7099) sailing through the House would make the scholarship program eligible for sales tax money for the first time in its 12-year history. With the new cash, the 60,000 students now getting private-school scholarships could double in four years, rivaling the size of larger public school districts in Florida.

While Republicans are rallying around the expansion, the proposal also drew fierce critics, including the Palm Beach County School Board and most other districts. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, took a measure of credit for killing the legislation, saying it maintained pressure on lawmakers.

“Public education stakeholders descended on Tallahassee en masse this week to protest this dramatic expansion of the state’s private and religious school voucher program,” said FEA Vice President Joanne McCall. “Our members and voters throughout the state sent thousands of letters to legislators this week.”

The Palm Beach Post also reported that there was rising criticism of what the legislation would mean to the politically connected nonprofit that oversees the scholarship program, created under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Step Up for Students could more than triple the amount of money it collects under the voucher legislation. The 3 percent fee it collects now brings in $8.6 million but could more than triple to $26.2 million when the program reached its full capacity envisioned under the legislation.

“It is a very difficult task to quickly remake the academic accountability for this program, especially in this environment,” said John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students. “We appreciate the efforts of Speaker Weatherford, President Gaetz, Senator Galvano and Rep. Diaz to try work this out.

The program can spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 mostly black and Hispanic low-income students to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to finance the private school scholarships. The legislation sets the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018, when about 120,000 students were expected to be in private schools on taxpayer money.

Florida students to say goodbye to FCAT, hello to new, unnamed test

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A so-far-unnamed test to replace the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) next spring was selected Monday by state Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, who said it will help make students ready for “college and careers.”

The nonprofit American Institutes for Research (AIR) will develop the test. It is currently being field-tested only in Utah which, although bearing few similarities to Florida, should still be enough to gauge its quality, Stewart said.

For security reasons, school districts won’t get a chance to review the new assessment, she added.

“Sample items will be available later this spring to let parents and students see what kind of questions will be on the test,” Stewart said in a conference call Monday.

The FCAT, used since the 2001-02 school year, was set for elimination as Florida continues on course to embrace the new Common Core Standards next year, the new initiative being phased in across more than 40 states.

Still, controversy has engulfed Common Core. Critics, many tea party conservatives, condemn Common Core as a big government takeover of education. Others on the political left blast it as more teaching-to-the-test.

Gov. Rick Scott last year tried to cool criticism, saying the state would not use the standardized test accompanying Common Core, the so-called Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

But while Florida began shopping around for a replacement test, the state’s Board of Education last month also approved almost 100 modifications to the Common Core Standards. Some question whether the now-adapted Florida standards undermines the purpose of Common Core, and whether state students can be compared with others elsewhere.

But the new FCAT replacement will be cheaper to administer than PARCC, Stewart said. She also said the unnamed assessment will allow students to use pencil-and-paper in part, unlike the online-only PARCC test.

“This assessment supports our new standards, which emphasize flexibility for teachers to make their own decisions in classrooms while preparing our students to analyze and think,” Stewart said.

 

 

Voucher bill strengthens what critics call taxpayer-funded monopoly for GOP-connected nonprofit

Monday, March 17th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A proposal expanding private school vouchers in Florida could pour millions of dollars into a politically connected nonprofit, creating what a rising chorus of Democrats, public school officials and business rivals are condemning as a taxpayer-financed monopoly.

Step Up for Students, which administers the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program created under former Gov. Jeb Bush, could more than triple the amount of money it collects under voucher legislation that Republican leaders are terming a priority this session.

The bill makes the scholarship program eligible for sales tax money for the first time in its 12-year history. With the new cash, the 60,000 students now getting private-school scholarships could double in four years, rivaling the size of larger public school districts in Florida.

While Republicans are rallying around the expansion, the proposal also is drawing fierce critics.

“The issue is not simply an argument between public schools and private schools and vouchers,” said Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach. “It’s an outrageous amount of taxpayer money that is involved here.”

Read full story here:  bit.ly/1gyGVOg

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Common Core opponents to crash Scott Hobe Sound fund-raiser

Friday, March 7th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Opponents of the Common Core Standards set to govern Florida classrooms next fall plan to rally outside a fund-raiser Gov. Rick Scott has planned for Sunday in Hobe Sound.

Scott will be collecting campaign cash at the home of Amin Khoury, CEO of B/E Aerospace, Inc., of Wellington. The $500-a-ticket barbecue, $3,000 if you want to share a roundtable discussion with the governor, will help fuel the governor’s re-election campaign.

But also on hand plan to be a handful of demonstrators from Florida Parents Against Common Core and other groups, urging Scott to “pause” the state’s participation in the nationwide testing standard.

Common Core critics also are frustrated by how Republican leaders in the Legislature have also stalled action on legislation (HB 25, SB 1316) aimed at stopping the standards from being used at least until a host of conditions are met, including statewide public hearings.

Common Core has been condemned as a government takeover of education by tea party groups, but opponents also have gained support from some on the left who see it as setting the stage for more teaching-to-the-test.

“Parents and Republicans want Common Core ‘paused’ for further review,” said organizers Laura Zorc of Vero Beach and Allison Rampersad, a Lynn University business professor and leaders of the FPACC.

“It was never voted on the way it stands now. It was implemented without parent say or representation from our local representatives,” they added.

 

Bush-era school voucher plan poised for expansion in House

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

A private school voucher program launched under former Gov. Jeb Bush could be dramatically expanded under legislation getting its first review today in a House subcommittee — and facing stiff opposition from Palm Beach and other school districts.

A priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, expansion of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program looms as a sharp political dividing point this election year. Along with another proposal aimed at beefing-up the charter school industry, the push is part of what Weatherford has promised to be a “massive” expansion of school choice options.

The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

Legislation going before the House Finance and Taxation subcommittee today would allow sales tax dollars — the state’s prime source of revenue — to be directed into the program by corporations and expand the eligibility pool of students, setting the program on pace to spend $873.6 million by 2018.

Meanwhile, the Step Up for Students, private non-profit which oversees the program, would see its 3 percent take for administrative costs swell from its current $8.6 million this year to $26.2 million when the scholarship program fills out.

While almost 60,000 students received scholarships this year, almost 94,000 applications were begun by families, who  Step up for Students says earn on average about $25,000 annually.

Step Up for Students Chairman John Kirtley is close to Weatherford and has called him the “poster child” for school choice, with the speaker having been home-schooled until his first year of high school.

Kirtley also is an adept political player on the Republican side. He chairs the Florida Federation for Children, a political committee that spent almost $1.5 million in the 2012 election season.

That political committee has collected contributions from Charter Schools USA, a Fort Lauderdale-based company that operates dozens of charter schools across Florida, including Renaissance Charter School in West Palm Beach.

Democrats want a three-year pause on statewide school testing

Thursday, February 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Democratic lawmakers are looking to hit the pause button on Florida’s student testing, school grading and plans to tie teacher pay to student performance, with legislation introduced Thursday calling for a three-year moratorium.

The proposals by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, come only a few weeks before Education Commissioners Pam Stewart is set to announce a new system for evaluating students, schools and teachers that would succeed the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT).

Gov. Rick Scott last year demanded that the state abandon the testing system that was intended to succeed FCAT because it was closely tied to the Common Core Standards, the evaluation Florida and more than 40 other states are implementing.

Common Core will be put in place beginning this fall.  But Montford and Saunders say the current, hurry-up attempt to devise a Florida-specific testing system that would evaluate Common Core this year risks wide-ranging failure, affecting schools, kids and teacher pay.

They want to wait. Although as Democrats in the Florida Legislature, Saunders and Montford are vastly outnumbered, they might find some allies on the Republican right, which has advocated scrapping Common Core.

Palm Beach County and a number of other school boards are pushing for a delay in the new testing regimen.

“Unless public confidence is restored, the entire system is at risk and we would forfeit the gains we’ve made in closing the learning gap and preparing our students to be college and career ready,” Saunders said. “I believe this bill gives us the time we need to build an accountability system that is unlike any other in the country.”

 

 

Bush-era voucher program could gain more cash with sales tax jolt, Weatherford says

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Already calling for a “massive expansion” of school choice, House Speaker Will Weatherford shed more light Thursday on his plans for beefing-up the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program, a controversial voucher program begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

As much as $286 million will be spent this year to send 59,674 low-income students, mostly black or Hispanic, to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based.

The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

But Weatherford doesn’t think that’s enough.

“One of the components will be the revenue streams that come into the program,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said of this year’s proposal.

He added, “We’re looking at adding sales tax as a component, which would allow for a revenue stream that would let it grow into the forseeable future.”

Allowing companies to direct their state sales tax revenues to the program could prove a major boost. The program originally gave companies credits only for the corporate income tax obligations, but now applies to income, insurance premium, alcoholic beverage, excise and other state taxes.

Adding sales tax represents a redirection of the state’s biggest single tax source. But Weatherford said he didn’t think that would kick the door open for unlimited funding of private scholarships.

“I don’t think you’ll see a massive jump in the cap,” Weatherford said.

The program is opposed by the Florida Education Association and many school boards, including Palm Beach County, which say it directs tax dollars that should go to public schools into private schools and the companies that run them.

The program has flourished under the direction of Tampa equity fund manager John Kirtley, chairman of Step Up for Students, the non-profit that administers the scholarships.

Step Up for Students receives 3 percent of the program’s money – about $8.6 million this year — for administrative costs, including salaries and office space.

The program’s defenders say it doesn’t drain public school dollars. Instead, they say it saves state money because the scholarships are less than the normal cost of sending kids to public schools.

Step Up for Students says almost 35,000 more students may be interested in drawing scholarships, which could demand an additional $150 million for the program. But Weatherford said Thursday he doesn’t have a dollar amount in mind.

“There’s a finite demand,” he said. “There’s not a million kids that are going to participate in the program.”

Call for rolling back 4-year degree programs surprises college system

Thursday, February 6th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Senate Republican leaders want to draw a sharp line between state colleges and universities, reversing a decade-long drive to expand bachelor’s degree programs at what used to be called community colleges.

Amid talk of “mission creep,” Senate budget chief Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is leading the charge for change. He said Wednesday that a bold line has to be drawn between colleges and universities.

Negron’s call for reining in college degree programs would be a major change of course in Florida and could alter a wave that began with St. Petersburg College offering the first bachelor’s degree programs in 2001 in nursing, education and information technology.

Since then, pushed by state lawmakers and Florida’s largest business associations demanding a better trained workforce, 25 of the state’s 28 colleges have begun offering bachelor of arts and bachelor of science degrees.

According to the state’s Department of Education, more than 170 bachelor’s programs are now offered across Florida colleges, largely in career-oriented fields such as nursing, teaching, supply chain management and industrial logistics.

But Randy Hanna, chancellor of the Florida State College System, said he was surprised by the call for change by senators. He told The Palm Beach Post that of the 850,000 students in the college system, only 30,000 are in bachelor’s degree programs.

“Every degree that a college offers is approved only after it is clear there is a workforce need,” Hanna said, affirming the goal of Florida lawmakers in the mid-2000s when they gave the go-ahead for more colleges to offer degrees.

Full story here:  bit.ly/1euFL77

Senate ready to rein-in 4-year degrees at state colleges

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida’s 28 colleges, pushed by state lawmakers to offer four-year degrees, may have grown to where they are now an obstacle to state efforts to have a top-ranked university system, Senate Budget Chief Joe Negron said Wednesday.

Negron, backed by other top senators, said lawmakers this spring will attempt to reverse a decade-long drive to expand the reach of the college system. He said there is only so much state money to go around, and state leaders are already committed to having Florida’s 12 public universities compete for prestige with the likes of North Carolina, California and other acclaimed systems.

“There needs to be…lines of demarcation,” Negron said of the relationship between colleges and universities. “So we’re not trying to do the same thing in two different settings. They both have important roles to play.”

Negron said colleges provide a key role in Florida. For many students, they are a lower-cost alternative to universities for those seeking new job skills or academic credentials.

But with bachelor’s degrees now offered in 500 programs at Florida colleges, higher education dollars have become fragmented with universities struggling to maintain curriculum and keep and attract professors.

“As you travel around the state, you’re seeing too many state colleges that instead of the four-year degrees being part of what they do, that’s now become the focus,” Negron said. “That’s the advertising. That’s what they’re trying to create as their brand.”

School choice politics could hurt Scott’s reach out on public schools

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

After slashing $1.3 billion from schools his first year as governor, Rick Scott has struggled to convince public school advocates that he is on their side by pouring money into classrooms and teacher raises during subsequent years of his term.

Now, as he faces a brutal reelection contest, Scott’s fellow Republican leaders may be reopening old wounds, floating a new proposal to expand a school voucher program that has long antagonized Florida’s biggest teachers’ union and many school boards.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said last week he wants a “massive expansion” of school choice efforts this year, including beefing up the scholarship program that redirects hundreds of millions of potential tax dollars from public budgets into private schools.

The move is giving Democrats and their allies more campaign talking points as they strive to portray Scott and his party as indifferent to public schools and eager to shift tax dollars into private hands.

“We’re definitely concerned about an expansion of this corporate voucher program,” said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association. “The schools that receive state money through this program aren’t accountable.”

The Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program will spend as much as $286 million this year to send 59,674 low-income students, mostly black or Hispanic, to more than 1,400 private schools across the state, three-fourths of them faith-based. The program, created in 2002, gives corporations dollar-for-dollar tax credits in exchange for donations they make to a private, non-profit group, which then passes the money to low-income parents for private school tuition.

Under legislation sponsored by Weatherford in 2010, the program’s funding was allowed to grow annually and will reach $357.8 million in scholarship money next year.

But Weatherford doesn’t think that’s enough.

He was joined last week by Senate President Don Gaetz, D-Niceville, in saying that broadening the program will be a priority when the Legislature convenes March 4.

Weatherford offered no specifics. But program supporters say almost 35,000 more students may be interested in drawing scholarships, which could demand an additional $150 million for the program.

“We’re going to do a massive expansion of choice for families,” Weatherford said.

Full story here:  bit.ly/LEWmsE

Scott schools’ budget big — but maybe not that big

Monday, January 27th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Scott's per-pupil dollars not mentioned in rollout.

Gov. Rick Scott’s election-year education budget, unveiled Monday in Delray Beach, is touted as including record amounts of spending for Florida schools, colleges and universities.

But one basic numbers remains elusive.

What is Scott’s per-pupil funding for K-12 students?

It wasn’t touched on by Scott or his staff — and may loom as a basic measurement that may not measure up to the biggest ever.

The state’s all-time mark for per-pupil spending was reached in 2007-8, when then-Gov. Charlie Crist signed into law a budget which included average, per-pupil spending of $7,126 for Florida’s roughly 2.7 million school kids.

The recession and budget-cutting blew a hole in that figure. It dropped to a recent low of $6,217 in Scott’s first year as governor — when he cut school spending by $1.3 billion.

Since then, back-to-back years of billion-dollar increases in school spending have brought per-pupil spending back up. But this year’s average $6,776 remains $350 short of the record reached under Crist, now Scott’s leading Democratic opponent in this fall’s governor’s race.

Scott has included a few items in his budget that appear intended to take a swipe at Crist. His $401 million motorist fee cut is the most noteworthy, since it erases a fee hike signed into law by Crist. Monday afternoon, Scott planned to make an appearance in Miami to tout a sales-tax holiday on hurricane-related purchases, last deployed by the state when Crist was governor.

On schools, the record for per-pupil spending was something many thought Scott was aiming at.

Last year, Scott proposed a $1.2 billion boost in school spending, which would have increased per pupil spending by $412. But based on that math, the $542 million increase he recommended Monday is likely to bring per-pupil spending to just around $7,000 — still below the mark reached in the good times by his Democratic nemesis.

State education leader vows new tests will be in place by fall

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart tried to assure a Senate panel Wednesday that she will meet a tight deadline for rolling out new standardized tests for evaluating students next fall.

Education officials have been scrambling to devise a new test since Gov. Rick Scott in late September announced that Florida was abandoning a national evaluation system that was to accompany the Common Core State Standards.

Common Core include new student benchmarks adopted by 45 states that are expected to be fully implemented in Florida beginning this fall. The move has been battered by tea party groups and some parent organizations who say it undermines local control of schools and cements another phase of a teach-to-the-test approach in schools.

“It is important that we have an assessment in 2014-15 that is aligned with what students are being taught,” Stewart told the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, was among a handful of senators who quizzed Stewart. He asked her to explain plans for what he called the Doomsday scenario, where effectively there is no test in place in time for the school year.

Stewart sidestepped. But she did acknowledge that it would be critical for Florida to have a test finalized and ready to go by June.

Five testing companies are seeking the contract. But not responding to the state’s “invitation to negotiate” was the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) that has fallen out of favor with Scott and other Florida Republican leaders

Stewart is to select a testing firm in March. But a bid challenge – a legal tie-up that is common in state contracting – could put the brakes on the state’s fast-track plans.

In two hours of testimony Wednesday, Stewart seemed to cast PARCC as possibly a fallback testing system, if major snags prohibit the state from settling on an alternate system.

But Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who sat in on the hearing, said he doesn’t want to see PARCC used in Florida.

“I just want to make sure PARCC is gone,” Gaetz said, adding, “All I know is the proposal that was in front of the state of Florida a year ago…had some serious flaws. We wanted Florida out of PARCC and we are.”

Election year school funding proposal earns nothing but shrug from Senate

Wednesday, November 6th, 2013 by John Kennedy

After Rick Scott pushed $1 billion increases in school funding the past two years, Senate Republicans were unimpressed Wednesday by the state Education Department’s proposal for a $386.6 million boost in 2014, when the governor will be running for re-election.

The recommendation would bump up per-pupil spending by a modest 1.87 percent, or $126.77 for each of Florida’s 2.7 million students.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, quizzed state officials who presented the spending proposal to the Senate’s education budget committee. He said that with rising insurance and transportation costs rippling through school districts, the increase could quickly disappear.

The budget panel’s chairman, Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said spending talks are at an early stage. But he was hesitant about making big promises for the election-year budget months before the Legislature convenes in March.

Galvano, though, said politics won’t be what drives the bottom line.

“We’re going to base the budget on what’s needed, and in an efficient and effective manner,” Galvano said. “It’s not going to be based on politics. Last year, there was a substantial increase” largely attributed to $480 million earmarked for teacher pay raises.

State educators, though, did seem to make a concession to Scott’s push for holding the line on college and university tuition increase. Neither proposal outlined Wednesday by the state’s college system and Board of Governors includes a proposed tuition hike.

Activists say Jeb’s foundation a “dating service” for corps seeking education dollars

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013 by John Kennedy

As former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush prepared to open his nonprofit’s annual education summit, a New Mexico advocacy organization is calling for federal officials to investigate spending by his Foundation for Excellence in Education.

The foundation’s two-day summit, which begins Thursday in Boston,features lawmakers and education officials from several states, including Florida’s Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity. But Progress Now New Mexico sent a complaint to the IRS asking it to look into the nonprofit foundation’s spending on travel, hotel and other expenses for government officials.

Progress Now maintains that IRS regulations prohibit nonprofits from paying officials or using tax-exempt money to benefit private companies. Sponsors of Bush’s annual summit have included Charter Schools USA, Pearson, the big testing firm that ran Florida’s FCAT, and other for-profit education interests.

“This tax-exempt organization is serving as a dating service for corporations selling educational products — including virtual schools — to school chiefs responsible for making policies and cutting the checks,” said Patrick Davis of Progress Now.

Foundation spokeswoman Jaryn Emhof dismissed the complaint.

“We fully comply with IRS rules when providing policy research and expertise and will continue to do so,” Emhof said. “This is nothing more than a politically motivated complaint by opponents of education reform.”

She added, “It’s not surprising that Progress Now New Mexico, a partisan organization that has a history of opposing education reforms that put students first, would attack efforts to improve the quality of education for children across America.

 

Radio ads supporting Common Core draw static for Jeb

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013 by John Kennedy

With the Florida Department of Education scheduling three public hearings this month on the new Common Core Standards and test that accompanies it, former Gov. Jeb Bush is stepping up his defense of a system caught in a crossfire between the political left and right.

Radio spots have begun airing this week on Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh programs across Florida supporting Common Core. The ads are sponsored by a group called Conservatives for Higher Standards.

The organization was founded by Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, both of which have received millions of dollars in financing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, also big supporters of Common Core.

The radio spots mention Bush, former U.S. Education Secretary Bill Bennett and tea party hero Mike Huckabee as among the backers of Common Core. And, the ads seek to deflect lingering criticism from conservatives by emphasizing that “there is no Washington, D.C., curriculum. That’s done on the local level.”

But Laura Zorc, a leader of Florida Parents Against Common Core, said Thursday that the radio spots are backfiring on Bush. Conservatives tuning into Glenn Beck, who has ridiculed Common Core, don’t want to hear ads supporting the system, she said.

Zorc also pointed out that many Republican Party county committees have endorsed resolutions opposing the standards.

“He is going against his own party,” Zorc said of Bush. “He is disrespecting the party by pushing his personal agenda.”

Public hearings are slated for Oct. 15 in Tampa, Oct. 16 in Davie and Oct. 17 in Tallahassee on the new standards, scheduled to be fully in place in Florida by next school year.

Gov. Rick Scott last week sought to straddle the political divide by telling federal officials that the state is withdrawing from the national testing system that was to assess how students are meeting the Common Core standards. But while looking to develop a new Florida test, Scott said the state was sticking by Common Core.

 

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