What lies ahead in the 2016 Florida legislative session?

TALLAHASSEE MOODY

Legislators are attending committee meetings now to hash out which bills will make it into the next session.  Since this is a presidential election year, the 2016 Florida Legislature convenes on  January 12th. Every year, most of the same politicians are assigned bills designed to move the “education reform” agenda closer to its ultimate goal of universal vouchers and privatization. Leadership knows these ideas are hostile to public education, so they regularly conceal them in other unrelated, bills. Please Sign up to receive Fund Education Now alerts and be ready to take action.

Given the notorious meltdown of Florida’s 2015 session and the multiple failures of the special session, it’s likely that those dead bills will be tweaked and resurrected.  Most of these “policies,” generated by lobbyists at the Foundation for Florida’s Future, are designated “model” legislation endorsed by the American Legislative Exchange Council and State Policy Institutes. Public education advocates should expect the following:

Testing: Continued justification of the Florida Standards Assessment, high stakes and push-back against altering the flawed Florida A-F accountability system.

Funding: Even though this is an election year, look for a small public education increase of 1%, no more. According to Florida’s chief economist, Amy Baker, Florida has a $3.6 B reserve and $650M non-recurring surplus. Florida’s per pupil funding has stood still for years. It is nowhere near the national funding average. With 50% of student funding coming from required local effort raised by additional taxes levied by the district, 6% from the Federal government and only 44% coming from the state, questions of equity and uniformity arise. The state never properly funded the transition to computer-based learning leaving technology deficits of a massive scale which played out during the FSA disaster. Why isn’t some of the surplus cash being put toward this serious need?

Open Enrollment: Precursor to “voucherization,” a step in that direction. Legislature is not willing to adjust for local needs and differences. Allows students to “open enroll” across district lines to any school who is currently under capacity.  Students who transfer are allowed to stay for the next six years, potentially displacing students who actually live in the district. Disrupts district need to plan and build schools based on anticipated growth. Since 60% of statewide school funding is generated by property taxes, allowing an uncontrolled influx of students into a district may create an unfair burden, impacting all students.

Capital outlay to Charters: Requires districts to share voter-approved millage increases with charter chains in order to pay for and improve buildings the public may never own.  NOTE: This is a controversial idea that comes up almost every session.

Charter Expansion: Education “reform” lobbyists are making the rounds to push a bill that removes all existing caps on charter school replication and allows any out of state for-profit charter school management chain to come to Florida and expand, regardless of need.

Voucher Expansion: Growing the corporate tax credit voucher for private schools is a numbers game. Every year, Step Up for Students claims to have, but never produces, “waiting lists” that range from 10, 000 to 100,000.  Since more students mean more dollars, it’s likely that there will be a continued erosion of the original “means tested” poverty levels used to qualify recipients. This steady “mission creep” has already moved away from poverty to a qualifying salary of $60K for a family of four. Look for a further expansion of this number as well.

Best and Brightest Teacher Bonus: This $44 million dollar idea which was hidden in an unrelated bill and passed during the 2015 session without a proper hearing or knowledge of many lawmakers provides a $10K bonus to teachers based on their teenage SAT scores.  The program favors new hires and Teach for America staff over veteran teachers. New teachers simply have to produce their scores and ranking to get the money. Veterans must produce decades old scores, prove their rank and be deemed highly effective by Florida’s accountability system. Look for lobbyists to push an expansion of the $44 million and a further loosening of the already shaky “guidelines.”

Assault on High School Sports: Destroys Florida High School Athletes Association by turning student athletes into free agents, prevents school districts from having their own policies, allows transfers to other schools without regulations, creates unfair advantages for a few schools, and encourages athlete recruitment by neglecting to provide for transportation. One intentional consequence of this legislation would be to allow the creation of a mega sports charter school system that would monopolize, control and perhaps monetize the state’s best student athletes.

Principal Autonomy Pilot: Expects districts to voluntarily relinquish control of a public school to a principal who can hire teachers, determine budgets and operate under the oversight of a state-run pilot program for three years. This is an effort to peel schools away from districts, allow charter-like flexibility and encourage competition. As of yet, the program is not fully determined and future rules governing it will be set by the Florida Board of Education at a later date, representing multiple unknowns.

 

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