Universal choice bill goes to DeSantis with uncertain pricetag, three school bills merged, Senate budget and more

Universal choice bill: Senators approved the universal choice bill Thursday that had already been passed by the House, and the proposal being called “one of the most transformative education bills in the history of the state” is now headed to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk. Still uncertain is how many students will take advantage of the program offering state scholarships or education savings accounts to every K-12 student in the state, and how much it will cost. The House projects the pricetag to be about $209 million, and its proposed budget puts another $109 million in reserves for overruns. The Senate projection is $2.2 billion, which includes students already on scholarships, with $350 million placed in reserve “in case our estimates are off.” News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Tampa Bay Times. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Phoenix. Florida Politics. WKMG. WFSU. reimaginED.

School bills merged: Three bills dealing with cultural issues that have become Republican priorities have been combined into a single bill that is now headed to the House floor. H.B. 1069 was amended Thursday to incorporate bills that would restrict how pronouns can be used in public schools among students and faculty, prohibit classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity in grades preK-8, and give parents more chances to influence what books should be available to students in classrooms. “I think that most of us here would agree, especially parents, that conversations about topics like this are important — they’re actually critically important,” said state Rep. Adam Anderson, R-Palm Harbor. “But I also think that most parents would agree that things that are this important should not be outsourced to the government.” Politico Florida. News Service in Florida. Florida Phoenix.

Senate budget plan: Senate leaders have released their $113.7 billion budget for the 2023-2024 fiscal year, which includes a 4.75 percent increase in public-school funding and a 3 percent pay increase for all state employees. It represents an increase of 3.5 percent over this year’s budget, and is $1.1 billion less than Gov. DeSantis’ proposal. News Service of Florida.

Also in the Legislature: The House State Affairs Committee has approved a bill that would require school board candidates to move into the district they represent only when they assume office, instead of at the time they qualify to run. News Service of Florida. Companion bills (S.B. 190 and H.B. 225) that would allow charter school students to play on private school sports teams and take part in private school extracurricular activities is moving through both chambers. reimaginED. What is tenure, who gets it and how would the Legislature’s push to put limits on it affect universities and their students? Tampa Bay Times.

New rule to give ‘clarity’: A rule that would prohibit instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in all public schools through the 12th grade is being proposed to “avoid confusion and provide clarity for teachers,” Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said Thursday. “This rule basically says we’re sticking to the standards. These standards don’t incorporate gender ideology or any of these theories in math, social studies or reading or anything else.” State Board of Education members will consider adopting the rule at next month’s meeting. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG.

Around the state: A Leon County charter school principal said she was told to resign or be fired after a parent complained that a Renaissance art lesson for 6th-graders was pornographic, Miami-Dade’s school board will review the district’s social emotional learning curriculum to see if it complies with state law, a Sarasota school board member who was accused at a public meeting of being an “LGBTQ groomer” files to run for re-election, Escambia school board members are at odds about which member of the board should be appointed to the Escambia Children’s Trust, the wife of a state senator is appointed as the executive director of the New College Foundation, and 4,500 teachers who have completed the state’s civics instructional program have started receiving $3,000 checks. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: School board members recently decided to review the district’s mental health curriculum to see if any of the social emotional learning materials violate the state’s Parental Bill of Rights that gives parents the “fundamental right” to decide matters pertaining to the upbringing, education and care of their child. Board member Monica Colucci believes the review will show that students are learning about “sensitive topics,” such as depression, suicide and physical and sexual assault, without discussion, supervision or input from parents. The 7-0 vote came a week after Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. said the Edgenuity/Imagine Learning Purpose Prep social emotional learning curriculum, which the district uses, “upon preliminary review, appears contrary to Florida law.” Miami Herald.

Orange: Twenty students at Colonial High School in Orlando were treated for heat exhaustion Thursday. The students had been evacuated from the school for an undisclosed reason. While waiting for sheriff’s deputies to clear the school, the students began having symptoms of heat exhaustion and three were transported to hospitals. Orlando Sentinel. WKMG. WESH.

Palm Beach: A jury has decided that a rapper who sang about shooting up his former schools was producing art and was not a criminal threat. Edward Leger-Berzolla was arrested in 2021 when he posted the music video School Shooter to YouTube and promoted it with a sign near Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. In it, he sang about shooting bullies at two schools. Leger-Berzolla said the song was not meant to be taken literally and that he was just trying to earn a record deal. Palm Beach Post.

Duval: A video of Dwayne Taylor’s 2nd-grade students at Biscayne Elementary School in north Jacksonville joyously celebrating a boy’s correct math answer to win the class a reward has gone viral, with more than 7.6 million views. “Harley, it’s up to you,” Taylor is heard saying on the video. “We made a bet. If Harley gets this right, then we can have free time. If you don’t, then we’re still working.” Harley nailed the answer, and the classroom erupted, with students dancing and screaming and hugging one another. One student shed tears of joy. WTLV. Florida Times-Union. WJAX.

Seminole: A Seminole High School student was arrested Thursday and accused of having a gun at school. After receiving a tip, administrators and school resource officers found the gun during a search of the student’s backpack. WFTV. WESH.

Sarasota: School board member Tom Edwards filed for re-election the day after he walked out of a school board meeting when a member of the public said he “appears to be a lawbreaker and an LGBT groomer.” Edwards, who is gay and has called himself “woke,” is one of 14 local school board members targeted for defeat in 2024 by Gov. DeSantis. “Our students need to have the other voice that doesn’t represent a political agenda,” Edwards said. “From terminating the superintendent to eliminating character education and everything in between, they need to know that somebody’s there that has their back.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Marion: The Marion County Acceleration Academy, a district-affiliated school that opened in August and helps students between the ages of 14 and 21 who left school before graduation obtain a diploma, has opened new offices in Ocala. About 220 students attend the school, which offers “web-based curriculum with in-person learning, individualized learning plans and career planning and life coaching.” Ocala Star-Banner.

Escambia: There’s a difference of opinion among school board members about who among them should be the board’s representative on the Escambia Children’s Trust. Patty Hightower is the current representative from the board, but at a workshop meeting this week her colleague, Kevin Adams, said he thinks David Williams should be in the seat because he’d be a better spokesperson for the “have-nots” in the district. Hightower said she isn’t giving up her seat without a vote from the school board, which could come at April’s meeting. Pensacola News Journal.

Clay: The Orange Park Town Council has rezoned a property to permit the expansion of the old Orange Park Performing Arts Academy building to house the St. Johns Classical Academy when it opens next fall. Clay Today.

Leon: A charter school principal said she was told to resign or be fired after a parent complained that a Renaissance art lesson for 6th-graders was pornographic. Hope Carrasquilla, who had been principal for less than a year at Tallahassee Classical School, said the parent complained about the students seeing a photo of Michelangelo’s famous nude sculpture of David. School board chair Barney Bishop said the parents weren’t notified about the content two weeks in advance, as the school requires for any “potentially controversial” lesson. “It saddens me that my time here had to end this way,” said Carrasquilla. Tallahassee Democrat. WCTV. Education Week.

Flagler: School Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt’s self-evaluation said she’s met seven of nine goals that can be measured now, leaving her 2 percentage points short of a “highly effective” rating. She set goals of increasing the percentage of students who are on grade level in state reading assessments to 60 percent, while only 40 percent achieved it, and increasing the percentage of students who are on grade level in math on state tests to 61 percent, while only 31 percent achieve it. Board members will discuss their own evaluations of Mittelstadt at a workshop meeting April 4. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: Sydney Gruters, a former aide to two Republican members of Congress and the wife of state Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, has been named the executive director of the New College Foundation. Gruters has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Florida, but the college’s note announcing her appointment doesn’t mention any experience in fund-raising. Her salary was not disclosed, and she starts April 3. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Florida Politics. The director of diversity, equity, and inclusion at State College of Florida has been fired. Brenda Pinkney, who had worked for the Bradenton school since 1984, said she was told by SCF officials there was “no more funding” for her position. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Teachers get checks for civics: More than 4,500 teachers have completed the state’s civics instructional program, Gov. DeSantis said as he began handing out $3,000 bonus checks to them Thursday. The course includes 50 hours of instruction on U.S. history and civics, and the goal is to have 20,000 teachers complete it. Florida Politics.

Around the nation: Challenges to books in school and public libraries set a record in 2022, according to a report by the American Library Association. More than 1,200 challenges were recorded, which is almost twice as many as in 2021 and the most since the association began keeping records 20 years ago. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” says Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. “The last two years have been exhausting, frightening, outrage inducing.” Associated Press.

Opinions on schools: If the Democratic Party is to maintain loyalty of black voters, the least it can do is get out of the way of children’s educational opportunities and support the public charter schools that support them. Markose Butler, The 74. The best defense against the threatened encroachment on free speech and academic freedom is the strong independent voice provided by faculty unions that can boast super majorities. Richard Hurd, Tallahassee Democrat. Concerns about waste and fraud in states with education savings accounts are misplaced, especially when comparing them to other government programs. Jason Bedrick, EducationNext.

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BY NextSteps staff