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Scholarships expansion bill headed for full House vote, parents’ rights bill revisions and more

Scholarship bill advances: The House’s proposal to expand eligibility for state K-12 scholarships to every student was approved Friday by the House Education Quality Subcommittee and now goes to the full House for a vote that could take place this week. Under the bill, students would be eligible for education savings accounts worth nearly $8,000 to use to attend private schools or buy instructional materials and exams. Several changes were made to the bill to align it with the Senate version: the Florida Board of Education would be required to develop recommendations to “reduce regulation of public schools” and develop an online portal to help parents choose from the “range of school choice options,” and districts could use vehicles other than buses to transport students. House projections put the cost of the bill at $209 million, but some other estimates suggest the bill will cost billions. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Tallahassee Democrat. Florida Phoenix. WFLA.

Also in the Legislature: Bills have been introduced in the Senate and House that would expand last year’s Parental Rights in Education law. H.B. 1069 would ban lessons about gender and sexual orientation through middle school, switch control over the selection of sex education instructional materials from local school boards to the state Department of Education, and bar teachers and other school employees from referring to students with pronouns other than the ones assigned at birth. Miami Herald. Two bills have been filed that would make changes in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program to allow retired teachers and other school employees to return to work without affecting their retirement. S.B. 896 and H.B. 905 are aimed at addressing the shortage of teachers and other employees. “This bill would allow retired school staff to come back into employment and fill the staffing gap to ensure Florida students aren’t waiting on the side of the road for a bus, or not able to access a guidance counselor at school.” said one of the sponsors, state Rep. Rita Harris, D-Orlando. Florida Politics. The Capitolist. Recapping the first week of the legislative session. Tampa Bay Times. WPTV.

Around the state: Lee County teachers and other classroom employees won’t be carrying guns if the district joins the state’s school guardian program, a campaign consultant in a 2022 Polk school board race has been charged with sending anonymous text messages about his candidate’s opponent, a Hillsborough teacher who has been accused of misconduct 23 times is still in the classroom, Palm Beach’s school board is considering options to build a high school in Riviera Beach, and Escambia school board members set their top budget priorities. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Hillsborough: A Wharton High School teacher who has been the subject of at least 23 allegations of misconduct has been investigated and disciplined, but remains in the classroom. Among the allegations against Todd Harvey are bullying, making inappropriate comments such as labeling a biracial student a “mutt,” taking money from students to raise their grades, making a Nazi salute and calling a transgender student a slur. Tampa Bay Times. A 22-year-old teacher at Winthrop College Preparatory Academy in Riverview has been arrested and accused of having sex with a student. Deputies said Paige Morley faces charges of sexual battery, lewd or lascivious battery, lewd or lascivious molestation, lewd or lascivious exhibition and engaging in a romantic relationship with a student. WFLA. WTSP.

Palm Beach: School board members are considering several options to build a new high school in Riviera Beach. School board member Edwin Ferguson, whose district includes Riviera Beach, said the city needs a high school to bring back some of the 2,000 city students who attend school elsewhere and to give the city a point of pride. If the board chooses one of the four options, it will have to change an already approved plan that includes spending $69 million to renovate Inlet Grove, North Tech and Riviera Beach Prep but not building a high school in Riviera Beach. Palm Beach Post.

Polk: A campaign consultant for a school board candidate has been charged with sending anonymous text messages about her opponent during the 2022 election campaign. James Earl Dunn Jr., 52, who advised Jill Sessions, is charged with violation of text message disclosure requirements, a first-degree misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in prison, for sending the messages about board member Lisa Miller. The messages falsely stated that Miller and her husband were under criminal investigation. Miller defeated Sessions by 11.2 percentage points in the November runoff. Lakeland Ledger. Lakeland Now.

Lee: If the school board approves a district recommendation to join the state’s school guardian program, teachers and other staff members who work in a classroom will not be eligible to carry weapons, according to district officials. Other school employees who volunteer to become guardians will receive 12 hours of diversity training and 132 hours of firearms safety and proficiency training from the sheriff’s department. Candidates also would have to pass a psychological evaluation and a drug test. Fort Myers News-Press. School board members are expected to vote soon on a $103.5 million proposal to turn hurricane-damaged Hector A. Cafferata Jr. Elementary into a K-8 school on district-owned property about 3.5 miles from its current location. The project is expected to take 25 months to complete. Fort Myers News-Press.

Seminole: A decision by the board of the A-rated Choices in Learning Elementary Charter School in Winter Springs to fire the popular principal has created tension on campus, say parents of students. Principal Erin Mandrell was told in November to resign or be fired shortly after one board member wasn’t allowed to hand-deliver a tiara to his daughter on her birthday due to school policy. Mandrell resigned, but later withdrew her letter and remains on the job even as the unelected members of the board search for a replacement. “It’s definitely nuts, for sure,” said Rian Haszko, who has two children enrolled at the school. “We’re all pretty much blown away with what’s going on right now.” Orlando Sentinel.

Escambia: Three priorities have been set by school board members for the 2023-2024 district budget: addressing the salary compression that has hit veteran workers with higher minimum wages being adopted, finding a way to continue the district navigator program even as the federal pandemic funds that launched it begin to evaporate, and renovating the district’s high schools. Board member Bill Slayton said the board has to start thinking proactively about what it wants to accomplish. “We need to take the forefront, take the ball and get it down the field,” he said. “People like to hear a plan.” Pensacola News Journal.

Alachua: Former superintendent Carlee Simon is one of three finalists for the superintendent’s job in the Belmont, Mass., school district, which has slightly more than 4,400 students. Her interview is Tuesday. Simon was Alachua superintendent for less than two years before she was fired in March 2022 in a 3-2 vote by the school board. Belmontonian.

Indian River: An 18-year-old Vero Beach High School student was arrested Friday and accused of having a loaded gun in her pocket. Deputies called her a “a documented gang member and juvenile delinquent” who faces a charge of being in possession of a weapon on school property. TCPalm. WPTV. WPEC.

Citrus: An 83-year-old substitute teacher at Hernando Elementary School was arrested and accused of inappropriately touching some students. Wolfgang Sprenger has been charged with lewd and lascivious conduct. He began as a sub in October 2022 and had worked in 11 schools before being removed Jan. 31. Citrus County Chronicle. WGFL. WTVT. WFTS.

Around the nation: School leaders across the country say the end of pandemic-era school meal benefit programs and soaring food prices are increasing the number of students who go to the school hungry, and is having an impact on their ability to learn. Associated Press. Despite a nationwide push to make tutoring accessible to help students recover learning lost during the pandemic, and research showing tutoring works, fewer than 10 percent of students in large school districts received such help this fall, according to a survey. In Miami-Dade, one of eight districts surveyed, the total was less than 1 percent. Chalkbeat.

Opinions on schools: Although the Legislature meddles too much in local government, its bill to move back school start times across the state is proper because most local school boards stubbornly refuse to adjust the hours as they know they should. Sun-Sentinel. Gov. Ron DeSantis’ efforts to restrict speech at universities are dangerous, authoritarian and contrary to free-speech principles. But it’s also true that universities have largely dug this grave for themselves. Christopher J. Ferguson, Orlando Sentinel.

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BY NextSteps staff