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Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How will the Florida Legislature butcher education next year? Read below

From State Impact

by John O'Connor

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is something of a slow news week for education reporters.

But lawmakers return to Tallahassee next month, so we’ll spend a few days getting you up to speed on what to expect this legislative session and who the key players are.

Here’s six bills that could set the tone on education for the Legislative session.

1) The budget — Florida has cut 18.1 percent from its school budget since the Great Recession began in 2008, sixth-most in the country. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a budget adding $1 billion to K-12 schools.

The additional money would stop the bleeding from three years of budget cuts, but Florida Democrats note the money plugs the cuts that Scott pushed last year.

Legislative leadership has sounded lukewarm about Scott’s proposal, but the governor has threatened to veto any budget that does not add money to schools.

2) Charter School funding – HB 903 — This bill is the only priority of the Florida Charter School Alliance, a new industry group with ties to former Gov. Jeb Bush’s education foundations.

The bill would require school districts to distribute local school levies on a per student basis for both district schools and charter schools.

Right now school boards decide how much of those local tax levies charter schools receive — which is very little in most counties.

Florida charter schools received an average of $2,700 less per student than district schools in 2009, according to a study by Ball State University researchers. More than $2,000 of that difference was because few local school districts give local levy money to charter schools.

The state would adjust its portion of funding to compensate for the difference if any districts do not comply.

The bill also changes the high-performing charter law approved last year. The law allows schools that have received a grade no lower than a B once in the past three years an expedited application and appeal process to expand or open a new charter mimicking the original.

The changes would allow charter school operators to open up to three charters — it’s now one — mimicking a high-performing charter in a county each year.

School boards in Polk and Seminole county are challenging the law in court.

3) McKay Scholarships — No bill yet — A Miami New Times investigation showed woeful oversight of the McKay Scholarship for students with disabilities.

The McKay Scholarships provides tuition vouchers for students with disabilities to attend private schools. The program serves more than 22,000 students at a cost of $150 million a year.

But some operators were using substandard facilities — or no facilities at all, teaching classes in public parks.

St. Petersburg Democratic Rep. Rick Kriseman took notice and has recommended changes to the program.

No bill has been filed yet, and any proposal sponsored by a Democrat could have a difficult time in the Republican-controlled Legislature.

4) In-state college tuition – HB 441/SB 1018 — Florida does not grant in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants — even if those students are U.S. citizens.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a group of students challenging the law. Lawmakers have also filed a bill ensuring that students who attended a Florida high school for at least two years would be eligible for in-state tuition on graduation.

Lawmakers have proposed the bill before, but have failed to approve it. If passed into law, the change could affect the Florida Bright Futures Scholarship program as well.

5) Gaming — SB 710/HB 487 — Lawmakers are considering big casinos in South Florida, but opposition is already lining up in the form of Attorney General Pam Bondi.

One way to sweeten the deal to reduce political opposition? Make it for the children.

Supporters could propose using casino revenue to add money to schools.

6) Tax credit tuition — HB 859/SB 962 — This bill would increase the cap on the tuition tax credit scholarship program.

The program grants tax credits to businesses or other donors who fund scholarships for low-income students at private schools.

The cap is automatically raised if the group overseeing the scholarships, Step Up For Students, collect donations totaling 90 percent of the cap. So far the group has not had any problems hitting the cap and nearly 35,000 students received scholarships in the 2010–2011 school year.

The bill would raise the tax credit cap to $250 million for the 2012–2013 school year, an increase of $75 million over the expected cap.

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