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Legal battle over Florida education system ‘adequacy’ ready for ruling

By Jim Saunders

News Service of Florida

A Leon County circuit judge heard closing arguments Friday in a potentially far-reaching lawsuit that challenges whether the state has met a constitutional requirement to provide a “high quality” system of public schools.

Judge George Reynolds, who heard four weeks of testimony and arguments, described the case as a “difficult issue.” He did not rule Friday and said lawyers have until April 25 to file written arguments.

The lawsuit, led by a group called Citizens for Strong Schools, is rooted in a 1998 constitutional amendment that says it is a “paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders.” The amendment fleshed that out, in part, by saying adequate provision will be made for a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system” of public schools.

Citizens for Strong Schools argues that Florida has not complied and that the court should require the state to take steps to carry out the constitutional amendment. Continue Reading →

Appeals court to hear arguments in Florida tax credit scholarship case

From the News Service of Florida

A state appeals court will hear arguments May 10 in a lawsuit led by the Florida Education Association challenging the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The 1st District Court of Appeal last week set the hearing date after Leon County Circuit Judge George Reynolds tossed out the lawsuit in May 2015 because he ruled the plaintiffs did not have legal “standing.” The voucher-like Tax Credit Scholarship program provides tax credits to companies that donate money to non-profit entities that help pay for low-income children to attend private schools. In a brief filed in August with the appeals court, the plaintiffs argued they have standing to challenge the constitutionality of the program. Continue Reading →

Massive education, school choice bills advance in Florida Senate

By Brandon Larrabee

News Service of Florida

A slate of education measures spliced into two larger bills passed the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, as legislative “trains” dealing with public-school issues began to leave the station.

One of the bills (SB 524), which originally weighed in at 15 pages, was amended to run closer to 59 pages. At least seven other pieces of legislation were combined in the new measure, which now deals with everything from funding for universities that are approaching “pre-eminent status” to services related to cochlear implants.

Most of the debate on the bill revolved around the “Best and Brightest” program, which would give annual bonuses to teachers who are highly rated and whose SAT or ACT scores rank in the top fifth of test results. The measure is a priority of the House but has encountered resistance in the Senate.
Continue Reading →

Contentious education, school choice bills pass Florida House

Brandon Larrabee

News Service of Florida

Republicans pushed a trio of contentious education bills through the House on Thursday, with the potential for more divisive measures to come before the legislative session ends next month.

Voting nearly along party lines in each case, the House passed legislation aimed at giving bonuses to teachers based partly on their scores on college admissions tests (HB 7043); easing the path for some charter school providers to open additional campuses (HB 7029); and allowing students to go to any school in the state that has open seats (HB 699). Continue Reading →

Charter school debate intensifies at Florida’s Capitol

By Brandon Larrabee

News Service of Florida

The legislative battle over charter schools kicked into high gear Wednesday, as measures dealing with educational choice advanced in the House and the League of Women Voters hammered a constitutional amendment that could increase the number of charters in Florida.

Of several education bills that landed on the House floor Wednesday, some of the sharpest debate centered on legislation (HB 7029) that would tighten accountability for charter schools in exchange for relaxing some limits on how often high-performing charter providers can open new facilities.

The chamber also began work on a proposal (HB 699) that would allow students to go to any school in the state that has open seats.

Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the session that this week was designated as the one in which the House would deal with education bills.

“We’re strong advocates of choice, and a lot of those kind of circle around that,” Crisafulli said. Continue Reading →

Charter school, public-school choice measures advance in Fla. Legislature

By Brandon Larrabee

The News Service of Florida

A constitutional amendment that would set up a statewide entity with the power to approve charter schools anywhere in Florida — bypassing local school districts — is headed to the House floor, along with a bill that would allow parents to send their children to any unfilled schools in the state.

Both measures gained approval Tuesday from the House Education Committee on party-line or nearly party-line votes.

The constitutional amendment (HJR 759) was approved on a party-line 9-6 vote after some committee members had left the room when the meeting ran late. The “open enrollment” bill (HB 669) passed, 13-5, with Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joining committee Republicans in voting for it.

Supporters of the constitutional amendment say it would give potential charter schools an option to launch if hesitant local districts unfairly lock them out. School boards are supposed to approve any charters that meet state requirements, backers of the legislation say, but often take other factors — perhaps even a fear of competition — into account. Continue Reading →

Fla. lawmakers back measures allowing cities, state to sponsor charter schools

By Brandon Larrabee

News Service of Florida

Lawmakers in the House and Senate pushed ahead Tuesday with legislation that would chip away at school boards’ control over whether to allow charter schools by giving the same authority to a statewide entity or city governments.

The House Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 9-3, along party lines, to move forward with a constitutional amendment (HJR 759) setting up a statewide body with the power to sponsor charter schools. Meanwhile, the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee, with an 8-1 vote, approved a measure (SB 808) allowing city governments to have the same authority.

Running low on time, the Senate committee put off a vote on the upper chamber’s version of the constitutional amendment on the statewide approval process.

The bills raised concerns even among lawmakers who said they supported charter schools, which are public schools that are allowed to disregard certain state regulations. Critics said the proposals would strip local control away from school boards, which are currently allowed to sponsor charter schools.

Supporters of the legislation said school districts are abusing their authority, which should simply be to approve any charter school that meets the requirements of state law.

“Some school boards have taken it upon themselves to interpret that statute to mean that they can just arbitrarily deny a charter, including those who are high-performing replications and including those that are clearly meeting statute,” said Rep. Manny Diaz, the Hialeah Republican sponsoring the House constitutional amendment.

Shawn Frost, a school board member from Indian River County who helped found the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, said local control could still go awry — pointing to a bill the House committee had just approved to require recess at public schools.

“Sometimes, we school board members don’t make the right move and you have to act,” Frost said.

But Bill Graham, with the Florida School Boards Association, said the proposal for a statewide authorizing body was a big-government solution.

“I see an opportunity here to create more government,” Graham said. “And I think all of us starting from the governor on down are attempting to reduce the quantity and size and number of people involved in government.”

Sen. Jeff Brandes, who sponsored the Senate measure dealing with city governments, said municipalities could handle the work of approving a charter school. The authority to allow those schools is a way for local officials to affect the lives of their constituents, he said.

“We think that the best government is the one closest to the people,” said Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.

But Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who doubles as CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said the measure could blur the lines of accountability for voters who have an issue with local schools.

“They’re not going to go to the city commission,” said Montford, who said he was voting for the bill with some hesitation. “They’re not going to go to another municipality governing board. They’re going to the local school board and saying, you are elected to represent us and public schools, and charter schools are public schools.”

Fla. lawmakers poised to pass Gardiner’s ‘unique abilities’ priorities

By Margie Menzel, News Service of Florida

As Senate President Andy Gardiner enters his final legislative session, the House and Senate are poised to quickly pass bills aimed at boosting educational and job opportunities for people with developmental disabilities — Gardiner’s signature passion as a lawmaker.

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner

The bills would expand scholarships for students with disabilities — whether in pre-kindergarten, K-12 or postsecondary programs — and offer financial-literacy training. Also, the proposals would encourage businesses and state agencies to hire people with disabilities and create a clearinghouse of information for families.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican whose son has Down syndrome, describes people with developmental disabilities as having “unique abilities,” and has made a priority of seeking changes to help them, especially children.

“So much of what we’ve worked on has come from other parents and families that say, ‘Boy, I’d really love my child to be in a regular classroom, or to get a high-school diploma, a regular diploma,'” Gardiner said. “Or — what we hope to pass the first week and actually send to the governor — a bill that has postsecondary options for children with unique abilities.” Continue Reading →