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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

ICYMI: Florida education news in review, week of March 19, 2017

Times file photo

It was another active week for Florida education news, with controversial measures moving through the Legislature and new revelations about achievement and access gaps for minority children. A federal judge allowed immigrant families to pursue their lawsuit alleging Collier County schools denied their children an education, and the Jefferson County School Board approved a contract to have all its schools run by a charter operator.

You can keep up with our conversation on Facebook, hear our podcast, and follow our blog to get all the latest Florida education news. All tips, comments and ideas welcome. Know anyone else who'd like to get this weekly roundup or other email updates? Have them send a note to jsolochek@tampabay.com.

Florida Senate takes 'stand for liberty' in passing religious freedom bill for schools over Democratic concerns, Kristen M. Clark
"Florida's public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday." …

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Senator proposes more autonomy for Florida school board members visiting schools

Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has offered an amendment to her testing legislation that has nothing to do with testing at all.

Rather, Flores has proposed 21 lines that would ensure school board members have unfettered access to schools in their districts. The amendment would allow individual board members to visit any traditional or charter school "on any day and at any time at his or her pleasure."

No one could require board members to provide advance notice before their visit, under the proposal, and the school would be allowed to offer but not require an escort on the campus.

"Another school board member or a district employee including, but not limited to, the superintendent, the school principal, or his or her designee, may not limit the duration or scope of the visit or direct a visiting school board member to leave the premises," it continues. "A school board, district, or school administrative policy or practice may not prohibit or limit the authority granted to a school board member under this section." …

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Pinellas applies for grant to strengthen, expand magnet programs

The Pinellas County school district has applied for a $15 million, five-year federal grant through the Magnet Schools of America program to enhance and expand existing magnet programs.

If awarded, the schools would begin accepting additional students in the 2018-19 school year. School district officials don't expect to hear back from the program until later this year or early 2018.

Bill Lawrence, the district's director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity, said the application's strength lies in making feeder program pathways from Kindergarten to 12th grade. For example, grant dollars would be used to enhance the "tech triangle" between Bay Point Elementary, Bay Point Middle and Lakewood High.

Bay Point Middle would get to integrate arts into its STEM program, build a new technology lab, enhance professional development for teachers and strengthen its engineering program. Lakewood High would use its dollars to beef up its athletic and lifestyle management magnet. …

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The blacker the school, the newer the teacher

HCPS

With town hall meetings taking place around the state about equity in education, organizers are asking: Do public school systems distribute their resources fairly to children, regardless of race and income level? And what about the classroom teachers? Does every child have an equal shot at a teacher with experience?

The data available suggests the Hillsborough district spends plenty of money in low-income communities, much of it on teacher trainers and social service providers.

But when it comes to the teacher who spends the entire day with the students, richer and whiter schools are getting those with more experience.

For example: The average teacher at a mostly white elementary school earns $51,459 a year. Her counterpart at a mostly black school earns $45,057. That $6,000 spread equates to about five years of experience. And the gap grows to $8,000 -- roughly six years' experience -- when comparing schools that are even more segregated. …

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Sen. Montford remains confident Florida testing will be scaled back

Sen. Bill Montford

Times file photo

Sen. Bill Montford

The chief proponent of legislation to significantly scale back Florida's high-stakes testing system is sounding upbeat about the chances for success, even after his bill was left off the Senate Education Committee's next meeting agenda while a competing measure appeared.

"I'm confident that one way or another we'll get our bill heard," Sen. Bill Montford, the Tallahassee Democrat who also heads the state superintendents association, told the Gradebook. "If not, maybe they can do a committee bill."

Montford's SB 964 calls for several actions backed by the superintendents, including the elimination of VAM scores for teacher evaluations, the deletion of several end-of-course exams and a return to paper-pencil testing.

"It is not a retreat from high levels of accountability. It is not a watering down of our standards or expectations," he told the committee at a recent workshop. "It is, I believe, a commonsense approach to accountability." …

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Gradebook podcast: Education bills on the move, turnaround schools and more

Potter Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Ciera Fox, 28, who attended Potter as a child, says repetition and routines help to comfort kids as they take on responsibility.

Octavio Jones | Times

Potter Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Ciera Fox, 28, who attended Potter as a child, says repetition and routines help to comfort kids as they take on responsibility.

Times education reporter Jeff Solochek highlights some of the bills moving closer to becoming to state education law, including SB 964 and SB 926 on testing, SB 436 and HB 303 on religious expression, and HB 591 and SB 808 on class size. Then Times education reporter Marlene Sokol joins the conversation for a discussion of the efforts to improve four-time F-rated Potter Elementary School. Read Sokol's story and follow-up for more details.

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Florida education news: Religious speech, teacher contracts, free lunch and more

RELIGIOUS SPEECH: The Florida Senate adopts a controversial bill aimed at allowing more religious expression in public schools, including among employees.

TEACHER CONTRACTS: The Florida House moves ahead legislation to prevent school districts from negotiating added job protections for teachers on annual contract.

FREE LUNCH: The Hernando County school district expands its federally funded free meals program to include almost all elementary and middle school students.

BAD ACTS: A Hernando County high school art teacher is arrested on accusations she had sex with a student. • Three Sarasota middle school students are arrested for having a weapon on school property, the Herald-Tribune reports.

TEACHER TESTS: Florida teachers grow frustrated with the state's certification exams, which many struggle to pass, ABC Action News reports.

STUDENT TESTING: An Orange County teacher testifies her students lose 37 days of learning because of testing and related preparations, the Orlando Sentinel reports.

ADVANCED EDUCATION: Minority students in Palm Beach County are less likely than white children to be enrolled in accelerated courses, the Palm Beach Post reports. …

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Rezonings in North Tampa AND New Tampa will be discussed next week

At Cory Lake Isles, an upscale gated community in New Tampa, some  homeowners fear their property values will suffer because of a school zoning change. A meeting is planned Thursday at Benito Middle School.

TIMES FILES

At Cory Lake Isles, an upscale gated community in New Tampa, some homeowners fear their property values will suffer because of a school zoning change. A meeting is planned Thursday at Benito Middle School.

Try to keep this straight.

Hillsborough County, responding to a building boom and the need to contain costs, is embarking on two sets of school rezonings that are related, but generating different kinds of push-back.

In North Tampa, as we have reported before, Cahoon Elementary and Van Buren Middle are to be merged, with Cahoon losing its status as an animal sciences magnet school. That change will free up seats for neighborhood children who now go to numerous schools in north Tampa and, in some cases, all the way up Bruce B. Downs Boulevared and into New Tampa. Hunter's Green and Clark Elementary both have these so-called "satellite" populations. According to the boundary plan, that arrangement will stop.

But here is where it gets tricky:

The district says it can free up 1,500 spots in New Tampa by keeping the North Tampa children closer to home. But new home construction on the eastern edge of New Tampa means they will have to move some children from Pride Elementary to Hunter's Green Elementary. That plan isn't popular among homeowners who say they were sold on Pride's high grades from the state. While Pride earned an A in 2016, Hunter's Green had a C. …

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Religious expression bill passes Florida Senate

Florida's public schools would have to let students lead religious prayers during the school day and at school-sanctioned events, under a controversial proposal that the state Senate approved Thursday, mostly along party lines.

Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, heralded his bill (SB 436) as a way for lawmakers to "take a stand for liberty," because it makes explicitly clear the rights to religious expression that students and teachers have in public schools, regardless of their faith.

But Democrats worry the measure goes beyond existing protections of religious freedom and violates the constitutional separation between church and state. They also fear it could lead to students and teachers being ostracized or discriminated against if they're of non-Christian faiths or non-religious.

"It's religiously coercive, divisive and unconstitutional," said Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach.

The bill passed on a 23-13 vote, with Miami Shores Democratic Sen. Daphne Campbell voting with Republicans to support the bill. Campbell told the Herald/Times: "I don't see anything wrong. The bill is not discriminatory. ... I just don't see how anyone could be against prayer." …

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New education dean at USFSP has deep roots in St. Petersburg

Allyson Watson

Colton Vines/Pete Henshaw, Northeastern State University

Allyson Watson

A new dean of the College of Education will join the University of South Florida St. Petersburg this summer, settling in a city her granduncle helped integrate decades ago.

Allyson Leggett Watson was appointed this week by Regional Chancellor Sophia Wisniewska to lead the college’s faculty. She comes to USFSP from Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, with a diverse student body of more than 9,000 on three campuses.

There, she serves as assistant dean for the College of Education, where she also teaches educational foundations and leadership. She holds an endowed chair for urban education, outreach and research, and is the founder and director for TURN, the Teaching and Urban Reform Network.

“She was a star faculty member, just outstanding,” said Martin Tadlock, USFSP’s regional vice chancellor of academic affairs, who previously worked as NSU provost. “Everybody knew Allyson. She was just raved about by the students.”

Watson’s family has deep roots in St. Petersburg. Her granduncle Gilbert Henry Leggett, a dentist, was a civic leader as St. Petersburg integrated. …

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Bill to limit job guarantees for annual contract teachers advances in Florida House

Times file photo (2012)

Since Florida lawmakers eliminated annual contracts for public school teachers, a majority of the state's school districts including Pinellas have guaranteed yearly renewals to those educators who earned an "effective" or "highly effective" evaluation rating.

The Florida House Education Committee on Thursday moved to end that authority. On a split vote, the committee favored a bill (HB 373) prohibiting school boards from awarding any contractual terms beyond what's provided in law.

Committee chairman Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the measure simply solidified the Legislature's intent from 2011, when it ended professional services contracts. Hats off to the unions that were able to negotiate tenure back into the contracts of about 95 percent of their teachers, Bileca said, but that was not the goal.

Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, agreed that the bill clarified existing statute, saying the bill "just makes sense."

Not every member took that stance. …

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Florida education news: Rezoning, teacher unions, grad rates and more

REZONING: The fate of the Pasco County school district's newly approved attendance boundaries sits in the hands of a state special hearing officer.

LABOR NEWS: The Florida House advances "union busting" legislation that has little chance of becoming law. • The fight over who will lead the Palm Beach Classroom Teachers Association continues, with one candidate claiming the union is trying to tie him to Donald Trump, the Palm Beach Post reports.

GRAD RATES: The Florida Department of Education launches an investigation into whether school districts are manipulating their numbers, the Associated Press reports. More from the Orlando Sentinel.

HISTORIC: The tiny, struggling Jefferson County school district becomes Florida's first district to have only charter schools, the Tallahassee Democrat reports. More from WFSU.

LIFE LESSONS: Some northeast Florida teachers learn how to teach personal finance to students, the Florida Times-Union reports.

NEXT STEPS: The Duval County School Board holds a special workshop to discuss what to do if superintendent Nikolai Vitti leaves, Florida Politics reports. Vitti recommends possible replacements should he depart, the Florida Times-Union reports. …

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Charter school operators criticize Florida's new capital outlay funding rule

Mark Gotz of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools questions the rationale behind proposed charter school rules before the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

The Florida Channel

Mark Gotz of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools questions the rationale behind proposed charter school rules before the State Board of Education on Wednesday.

Florida charter school operators took issue Wednesday with proposed rules governing their access to state capital outlay funding, a subject of heavy debate almost annually in Tallahassee.

They pointed specifically to a section that would prohibit charter schools from receiving the money if they had earned one F or two consecutive state grades lower than a C.

"Charter schools are public schools and need to be treated equally and equitably," Mark Gotz, an executive board member of the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools, told the Florida Board of Education during discussion on the proposal. "Our public schools that are going to be less than C's aren't going to lose their capital funding, are they? I wouldn't think so."

Gotz suggested the rule would make it impossible for charter schools in low-income neighborhoods where academic success comes less easily to get and maintain funding for their buildings. He and another speaker urged the board to deny or change the recommendation.

Board member Gary Chartrand asked Department of Education staff for the rationale, saying the critics made a good point. …

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Florida Board of Education raises concerns over services for English-language learners

Florida Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey calls the state's proficiency level for English-language learners "outstandingly low."

The Florida Channel

Florida Board of Education member Rebecca Fishman Lipsey calls the state's proficiency level for English-language learners "outstandingly low."

Changes to federal law have the Florida Department of Education proposing several amendments to state rules for English-language learners, including one proposal that has many advocates up in arms.

The recommendation to lower the proficiency level on Florida's annual assessment for ELL students hase raised concerns that children could be labeled as not needing language services and then pushed out of the program before they are ready.

Mary Jane Tappen, executive vice chancellor for K-12 education, told the board that data indicate students have not been "exited" from the program in larger numbers even as their proficiency rates rose with a new test, implemented last year. Reasons vary, Tappen said, but include the fact that the test score is just one factor considered by a panel of educators who review each student's needs.

The recommended rule includes a projection that 18 percent of students would demonstrate proficiency, compared to 2 percent if the old rule remained.

Board members admitted to being baffled by what they considered a counterintuitive result that lower standards would yield fewer students qualifying to leave the program. They said it raised more basic concerns. …

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Are class size counts on their way out for Florida's class size enforcement?

The House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee discusses scaling back penalties on class size violations.

The Florida Channel

The House PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee discusses scaling back penalties on class size violations.

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature this week advanced bills that would end penalties for schools that do not meet voter mandated class size requirements at the classroom level.

SB 808 and HB 591 would eliminate fines on schools with classrooms that miss the mark, instead allowing them to measure class size as a schoolwide average. The legislation faced no opposition in either the Senate Education Committee or the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, did ask the obvious question: "Is this a workaround to the constitution?"

Voters have twice rejected changes to the amendment, which they imposed in 2002. It mandates classes of no more than 18 students in kindergarten through third grade core courses, 22 in fourth through eighth grades, and 25 in high school.

Lawmakers, urged on by school district officials who bemoan the inflexibility of implementing the rules, have changed the laws governing the mandate several times. They have redefined several courses to not be counted, and allowed "schools of choice" to avoid the stricter counts. Charter schools also have not been subject to the classroom-level requirement. …

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