Scholarship bills, budget talks to begin, early learning bill downsized, school choice and more

School choice scholarships: A bill that would streamline the state’s K-12 scholarship programs was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Thursday and is now ready for a House vote. The proposal would merge the McKay and Gardiner programs for students with special-needs and the Family Empowerment Scholarship, which is open to any students whose families have a household income of $79,500 or less. “A huge number of families who presently do not qualify for these scholarships will be able to, giving more choice,” said Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House bill sponsor. The Senate’s version would combine the McKay and Gardiner programs, fold all other programs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship and open education savings accounts for students. It is ready for a Senate vote. Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, the bill’s sponsor, said, “It (the House) looks like it’s moving more in the direction of our bill. So, we still have some kinks to be worked out there.” Step Up For Students, which hosts this blog, helps administer the state scholarship programs. News Service of Florida. redefinED. Politico Florida.

Budget negotiations next: The House passed its $97 billion budget on Thursday, which includes $22.6 billion for education, and now members from each chamber will start negotiating to reconcile the differences. The Senate approved a $95 billion budget, which includes $22.1 billion for education. A big part of the budget-making process will center on how to spend about $10 billion in federal stimulus funds. Among the options are reducing or eliminating the proposed cuts in higher education spending. The House budget calls for a reduction of $600 million, and the Senate’s budget would cut $250 million. News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Politico Florida. Capitol News Service. Florida Politics. WFTS.

Also in the Legislature: A Senate committee approved a bill revising the state’s early education program, but only after cutting back on accountability proposals that private providers objected to and deleting a provision that would have created a Division of Early Learning under the Department of Education. The bill now goes to the Senate Budget Committee. Politico Florida. A bill to end the pension plan for new state employees, including teachers, passed in the Senate. New workers would instead be enrolled into an investment-style plan. Miami Herald. Politico Florida. Associated Press. Florida Phoenix. Florida Politics. Thursday, the Senate narrowly approved S.B. 86, which would switch Bright Futures scholarships funding from a fixed percentage of tuition and fees to whatever the Legislature appropriates every year. It now goes to the House, which does not have a companion bill. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. WPEC. WKMG. Florida Politics. Student tuition grants to nearly half of the state’s private colleges and universities could disappear under a bill that would tighten the standards for those schools to qualify to receive the grants. News Service of Florida. A bill that would have given active and retired members of the military and others access to free online courses at state universities was put on hold by the Senate Education Appropriations Subcommittee to work out “budgetary issues” with the House. News Service of Florida. The Legislature’s push to ban transgender females from competing in girls sports in high schools and colleges is part of a national movement that began with an Idaho law. Orlando Sentinel.

School choice support: A record 71 percent of Americans now support school choice, according to a Real Clear Opinion Research poll sponsored by the American Federation for Children. That’s up from 64 percent a year ago. Support cut across racial and political lines. About 73 percent of whites support choice, while 68 percent of Hispanics and 66 percent of blacks agreed. Three-quarters of Republicans and 69 percent of Democrats also said they backed the concept. redefinED.

Around the state: About 1,000 Hillsborough County teachers were told this week that they won’t have a job at their schools next year, anti-LGBTQ protesters demonstrate in front of a Brevard County School Board member’s home, Lee County is discontinuing its Lee Home Connect virtual learning option, the assistant principal in Escambia County who is accused of helping her daughter cheat to win a homecoming contest pleads not guilty, the Leon County School District and several others in north-central Florida announce in-person graduation plans, and some Bay County School Board members say they didn’t know the district would have to pay for a special election this month to raise property taxes for schools. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Hillsborough: Nearly 1,000 teachers learned this week that they will not return to their job when schools restart in August. The district is trying to pare down a $100 million-plus deficit. Superintendent Addison Davis said some of those who won’t be returning to their current schools could still be placed elsewhere in the district. Other cuts include four-day furloughs for all employees over the summer, and $15 million from travel, overtime, construction and other expenses. Davis is also considering asking voters to increase taxes to help fund art, music and physical education classes, and mental health and technology services. WFLA. Axios.

Palm Beach: A petition drive has begun to do away with the school district’s requirement to wear face masks at school. The district requires students and staff masks at all times unless eating or drinking. WPTV.

Lee: The district will discontinue the Lee Home Connect virtual learning option when schools restart in August. Students in that program will be automatically placed back in their assigned schools. Those who want to continue remote learning will be switched to the Lee Virtual School. Fort Myers News-Press. WBBH. WINK. WFTX. School officials are considering merging the soon-to-be-closed Lehigh Middle School with the Veterans Park Academy of the Arts, a pre-K through 8th grade school. Some Veterans Park parents are cool to the proposal, fearing they’ll lose the school’s personalization if the two are merged into a 3,000-student school. Fort Myers News-Press. District officials said Thursday that photographs offered by school board member Gwyn Gittens as proof that the district’s portable classrooms are dangerous for children were all taken at one campus, and those problems are scheduled to be repaired this summer. Gittens said the photos speak for themselves. WINK. A school bus driver was taken to a hospital for treatment after a car ran a red light and ran into the bus. Five students were on the bus headed for Gulf Elementary School, but none of them were hurt. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: Anti-LGBTQ protestors marched in front of school board member Jennifer Jenkins’ home in Satellite Beach on Thursday. Jenkins, her husband and their daughter, who is in kindergarten, were out of town but were told of the demonstrations by their neighbors. The protestors held signs saying “two genders & one crazy-evil school board” and “LGBTQ agenda is ungodly,” and some complained about mask mandates. Neighbors said the protesters called them “pedophile lovers,” and said the demonstrations would continue every night at Jenkins’ home. Florida Today.

Seminole: Superintendent Walt Griffin, who is retiring June 30, said he’s pleased that longtime school board attorney Serita Beamon will replace him. “The district is going to be in very, very good hands with Mrs. Beamon and I would like everyone to give her a chance to get to know her better,” he said Thursday. “She is brilliant and will have a lot to bring to this organization.” Beamon was selected only after the board first chose another candidate, then reversed its decision. “I think what the public saw is a very tough decision for our school board,” said Griffin. “I understand and respect all that they had to go through.” WKMG.

Sarasota: Vaccination shots will be available Saturday at Venice High School for all Sarasota County School District employees. Employee ID cards are required. Charlotte Sun.

Marion, Alachua, Bradford, Levy: School officials in four north-central Florida school districts are proceeding with plans to hold proms and in-person graduations. Safety protocols will be followed. “We were determined to find some way to do at least an in-person graduation because we recognize that our seniors, especially, lost so much,” said Alachua district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson. WUFT.

Escambia: The assistant principal who is accused of cheating to help her daughter get elected homecoming queen at Tate High School has pleaded not guilty. Laura Carroll, 50, who worked at Bellview Elementary School, has been charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor for allegedly using her special access to student data to cast fraudulent votes for her 17-year-old daughter, Emily Grover, who was also charged. Grover was expelled and Carroll was suspended. Pensacola News Journal. WEAR.

Leon: District officials have announced that in-person graduations will be held June 7-12. All but one of the seven ceremonies will be held at Gene Cox Stadium. Each student will get six tickets for guests. Graduates will wear masks during the ceremonies, and guests will be socially distanced in the stands. Tallahassee Democrat. WTXL. WCTV. Chiles High School’s Black History Brain Bowl team recently won the state competition hosted by the Florida Education fund. Team members are Jordanne Stewart, Destiny Stewart, Noah Kabbaj, Alana Waddell and Aziza Davis, and they’re coached by Edra Taylor. WTXL.

Bay: Some school board members said they did not realize that holding a special election asking voters to approve a property tax hikes for schools would cost the district $215,000. At least one, Brenda Ruthven, said she wasn’t sure she would vote for the increased tax. Election day is April 20, but early voting starts Monday. If approved, the money raised by the tax would be used for salary increases, school security, mental health services and Pre-K programs. WMBB.

Citrus: George Bacon, who taught science at Crystal River High School for 36 years and was also an ordained minister from the Universal Life Church who officiated at weddings and funerals of former students, has died at the age of 69. Citrus County Chronicle.

Putnam: Interlachen Elementary School will be renamed to honor a Vietnam War soldier who died while saving a fellow soldier in 1969. Robert H. Jenkins Jr., who was 20, threw his body over his friend’s to shield him from a hand grenade. The old Interlachen Middle School had been named after Jenkins, but it’s closing in a district consolidation. WJXT.

Monroe: The school district is considering offering summer school sessions that would be open to all K-12 students. “Typically, summer school is geared toward recovery and remediation,” said district spokeswoman Amber Archer Acevedo. “This one will be expanded to all students to encompass a wide array of other types of activities and formats. We know students have lost time in the classroom and with their peers.” Details are expected to be announced later this month. Florida Keys Weekly.

Colleges and universities: Nova Southeastern University’s plan to require students and staff to be vaccinated before returning to the campus in the fall is now undergoing an official review. President George Hanbury said Thursday that a group of experts will evaluate how Gov. Ron DeSantis’ executive order prohibiting “vaccine passports” will affect those plans before making a final decision. Sun Sentinel. Gulf Coast State College in Panama City announced it is offering $700 per semester off tuition for students from Bay, Gulf and Franklin counties. Panama City News Herald. WMBB. WJHG.

Around the nation: The number of black students who have returned to in-person learning has grown since January, according to the Institute of Education Sciences, and is now at 46 percent. Federal data also show that about 7 in 10 Asian-American students are still learning remotely. The 74. NPR. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said Thursday that she expects all U.S. schools to be fully open for in-person learning in the fall. ABC News. Almost 80 percent of teachers in pre-K through 12th grade have received at least one vaccination shot, according to surveys from the CDC and the American Federation of Teachers. K-12 Dive. About 80 percent of high school seniors have completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, but the percentages are lagging in schools with low-income or minority students. K-12 Dive. Verizon is recalling 2.5 million Ellipsis Jetpack mobile hotspots that were sold to U.S. schools because they could pose a fire hazard. The hotspots were issued to students to provide access to Internet service. Miami Herald.

Opinions on schools: Let’s start trusting families to make the right choices for their children’s education. Scott Kent, redefinED. Strengthening Florida’s Schools of Hope program would expand options for underserved students and close equity gaps. Let’s seize this opportunity to put students ahead of bureaucracy and ensure quality learning options are available where they are needed most. Gary Chartrand, Florida Politics. We are living in a time when many people are questioning whether “American exceptionalism” is still true — or was ever true. At a time like this, it is good for Florida students to hear from immigrants who can give first-hand accounts of what life is like under Marxism. William Mattox, Orlando Sentinel. With so many children having suffered directly or indirectly from the effects of COVID-19, it is unrealistic to think that school grades issued by the state won’t reflect that, punishing the very students, teachers and schools that have already suffered the most. Marie-Claire Leman, Tallahassee Democrat.

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BY NextSteps staff