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House approves expansion of vouchers and relaxation of child labor laws, district authorizes book art changes, and more

Vouchers expansion clears House: The full House voted 109-1 Thursday in favor of a proposal to expand the rate of growth in the state scholarship program for students with disabilities. Current law caps the rate of year-to-year growth at 3 percent. This bill would increase that annual cap increase to 5 percent, would narrow the allowable purchases parents can make with voucher funds to “equipment such as instructional materials … for subjects in language arts and reading, mathematics, social studies, and science,” and set deadlines for getting payments to parents and schools sooner. The Senate’s Education PreK-12 Committee approved that chamber’s version of the bill earlier this week. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. Florida’s Voice. Florida Politics.

Child labor law changes: Long-standing laws governing how much students 16 and 17 years old can work on school nights and in weeks during a school year would be relaxed under a bill approved Thursday in the House by an 80-35 vote, mostly along party lines with Republicans in favor. Those students could work eight hours or more in a day before school, and more than 30 hours a week during the school year under the proposal. “This bill is about choice and opportunity for families,” said Linda Chaney, a St. Pete Beach Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “I trust that our families and our teens will make the right choice for them.” News Service of Florida. Associated Press. Politico Florida. Tallahassee Democrat.

Also in the Legislature: A House bill authorizing the creation of a task force to study the potential impact of artificial intelligence in education was unanimously approved Thursday by the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee. News Service of Florida. A proposal to pay a Pasco County man $1.5 million for pain, suffering and costs incurred in a 2006 collision with a school bus was approved Thursday by the House Civil Justice Committee. Marcus Button was 16 and riding to school with a friend when the school bus pulled in front of them. Florida Politics. Senators unanimously approved a bill changing Tallahassee Community College’s name to Tallahassee State College. The House’s version is ready for a floor vote. News Service of Florida.

Around the state: Indian River school district officials authorized drawing clothing on illustrations in several popular children’s books after a Moms for Liberty member complained about nudity in the library books, New College’s dean of students is accused of making homophobic jokes during a standup comedy routine last month, three Alachua County schools are selected by the state to participate in a year-round schooling experiment, Monroe’s school board approves a contract extension for Superintendent Theresa Axford, Alachua’s is expected to vote Monday on an extension for Superintendent Shane Andrew, and Hillsborough, Palm Beach, Brevard and Okaloosa schools announce their teacher of the year. Here are details about those stories and others from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade, Broward: Both school districts fall below the CDC’s recommended vaccination rate of 95 percent for kindergarten students necessary to attain herd immunity, according to district data. In Miami-Dade, the rate is about 85 percent. Nearly 14,400 students received a temporary medical exemption and 12,811 got a medical or permanent religious exemption. In Broward, 23 district schools have vaccination rates of below 80 percent, and home-schooling, charter and private schools rank in the bottom nine out of 165 on the list. CBS News. High school graduation dates have been set for both Miami-Dade and Broward. Miami Herald.

Hillsborough: Clayton Nylund, a science teacher at Blake High School in Tampa, has been selected as the school district’s teacher of the year. Others honored were Ilfaut Joseph, a community resource teacher at Jennings Middle School, as the Ida S. Baker diversity educator of the year, and Maria Ortiz, the principal’s secretary at Temple Terrace Elementary, as the instructional support employee of the year. Tampa Bay Times.

Palm Beach: The school district honored its top educators in a ceremony Thursday. Teacher of the year is Katie Judge, a 3rd-grade teacher at Palm Beach Public Elementary. Scott McNichols of Forest Hill Elementary is the principal of the year, Jamie Evans of Glade View Elementary is assistant principal of the year, and Doris Cabrera-Jerez, an administrative assistant at Wellington Elementary, is employee of the year. Palm Beach Post. WPEC. Metal detectors have been installed in four more high schools this week and are being tested. Boynton Beach Community High, Park Vista Community High, Forest Hill Community High and Palm Beach Central High join four other schools in receiving the security devices in the second phase of the program that will eventually extend to every high school. WPTV. WPEC. Palm Beach Post. Sixteen-foot walls atop 10-foot berms will be built to separate the Lotus Edge development and the 665 homes planned there from the noise and lights coming from Olympic Heights High School in Boca Raton. Palm Beach Post.

Polk: A political strategist involved in the 2022 district school board races pleaded guilty Thursday to seven counts of violating text message disclosure requirements. James Dunn, who lives in Texas, was hired to help candidates Jill Sessions and Terry Clark. Docunents indicated Dunn hired two companies to send false text messages about Sessions’ opponent, incumbent Lisa Miller, from seven phone numbers to thousands of voters. Dunn will be on probation for 11 months. WFLA.

Brevard: Deborah Price, a 6th-grade teacher at Riviera Elementary School in Palm Bay, was chosen Thursday as the school district’s teacher of the year. She’s now eligible for the statewide competition. Space Coast Daily. Florida Today.

Volusia, Flagler: Absenteeism was above the state average in the Volusia school district during the 2022-2023 academic year, and Flagler’s rate was below. But like the state average, absenteeism in both districts was significantly above the rates during the 2019-2020 year. Of the 90 Volusia schools tracked, 62 had at least 25 percent of students considered chronically absent by missing 21 or more days in the last school. In Flagler, 4,020 students were considered chronically absent, and seven schools had rates of 25 percent or more. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Clay: Finalists have been chosen for the school district’s teacher and school-related employees of the year. Winners will be announced Feb. 8. Teacher finalists are: Edwin Ormeo, who teaches TV production at Oakleaf High School; Lisa Allen, a 1st-grade teacher at Coppergate Schools of the Arts; Regina Bragg, a 2nd-grade teacher at Swimming Pen Creek Elementary; Allison Altwalter, a 4th-grade teacher at Spring Park Elementary; and Robin Campbell, a science teacher at Wilkinson Junior High. School-related employee finalists are: Philip Turturro, a school suspensions liaison at Doctors Inlet Elementary; Andrea Wilson, a behavioral health assistant at Ridgeview High; Josephine Roquemore, the principal’s secretary and bookkeeper at Grove Park Elementary; Pamela Saxon, a behavioral health assistant at Keystone Heights Elementary; and Shalaunda Delano, a school nurse at McRae Elementary. Clay Today.

Okaloosa: Amy Bowden, a 4th-grade teacher at Antioch Elementary School in Crestview, has been chosen as the school district’s teacher of the year. She is now eligible for the statewide award. The other finalists were Mary Miller, a high school English teacher at Baker School, and Kendal Cragin, a math teacher at Niceville High. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Alachua: Metcalfe and Rawlings elementary schools and the P.K. Yonge Developmental Research School have been selected by the state to participate in a year-round schooling test program, beginning this July and continuing through the 2028-2029 school year. The test was approved by the Legislature last year. Participating schools will be required to provide data about their results to the Florida Department of Education. Alachua Chronicle. WCJB. A proposed contract for Superintendent Shane Andrew will be considered at Tuesday’s school board meeting. Andrew would be paid $190,000 a year through June 30, 2027, with annual raises equal to what other administrators get, receive a $2,000 bonus each year, an $800-a-month car allowance, a retirement contribution of 10 percent of his salary every year, a cell phone and a credit card. If the agreement is approved, it goes into effect this month. Gainesville Sun. The district’s month-old guidelines on processing books challenges has been criticized for not conforming to district policies. School board member Sarah Rockwell said the district is working to reconcile the policies, and that the new guidelines are not meant to ban books, but to make the review process transparent. Gainesville Sun.

Indian River: School district officials recently drew in clothing on illustrations in several  popular children’s books to satisfy a Moms for Liberty member who complained about nudity in the books. At a meeting between district officials and Jennifer Pippin, the chair of the local Moms for Liberty chapter, an officials suggested that clothes be drawn on the characters to mask the nudity. Pippin said she was “absolutely fine with that.” So shorts were added to the main character, a young boy whose penis is showing, in Maurice Sendak’s classic In the Night Kitchen. Overalls were added to cover the backside of a goblin in Unicorns Are the Worst, and a nude woman in Draw Me a Star was covered with a bikini and her male companion with board shorts. Popular Information. New Republic.

Monroe: Superintendent Theresa Axford’s contract was extended a year by the school board this week, to July 31, 2025, at the same $175,000-a-year rate she’s receiving now. Axford has worked for the district for about 35 years, and has been superintendent since 2020. WLRN.

Colleges and universities: New College’s dean of students, David Rancourt, did a recorded standup comedy routine last month in which he joked about gay sex and rape. Some critics called his remarks homophobic, but college spokesman Nathan March expressed support for Rancourt and others who performed. “Cancel culture is over at New College,” he said. “Comedy is a work of art, one that is reliant on our society’s tenets of free speech and free expression.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Many of the 140 athletes recruited to join New College’s first-year sports programs say they had no idea they were walking into a culture fight they don’t understand. New York Times. Florida State University’s faculty union keeps its certification after reaching the state mandate of having 60 percent of potential members paying union dues. Tallahassee Democrat. Mike Martin, the head baseball coach at Florida State University for 40 years, has died at the age of 79. He retired in 2019 with 2,029 wins and qualified for the NCAA tournament in each of his 40 years. In 2021, he was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia. Tallahassee Democrat. Associated Press.

Teaching black history: February is Black History Month, but many teachers in Florida are wary about what they can say without violating the state law restricting classroom discussions about race, racism and slavery. “How do I teach the end of slavery, the 13th Amendment, and then not answer or acknowledge” the associated atrocities, wondered Crystal Etienne, a middle school civics teacher in Miami-Dade County. Axios.

Moms for Liberty at 3: The conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, born in Florida three years ago as a movement supporting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ “culture wars” against mandated masks in schools, LGBTQ-related topics and in favor of parental rights in education, has struggled somewhat lately to maintain its influence. Its record in electing school board members is mixed, and some chapters have left the national organization after one of the founders, Sarasota school board member Bridget Ziegler, was caught in a three-way sex scandal with her husband and another woman. “Two things often happen with a movement — one, you keep pushing and pushing and eventually, you’re outside the mainstream of what regular voters are about or feel comfortable supporting, and two, sometimes you just run out of steam,” said Aubrey Jewett, associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. But, he added, “on the other hand, occasionally, people rebound.” Florida Today.

Around the nation: U.S. students in grades 3-8 are recovering from learning losses during the pandemic, but at varying rates depending on where they live. This website allows you to see how your school district has done compared to the national average from 2016 to 2023 (or 2022 in Florida) in math testing, and to compare multiple districts. New York Times.

Opinions on schools: The state’s decision to eliminate sociology from general education core course options runs afoul of Florida’s own stated goal to prepare “students to become civically engaged and knowledgeable adults who make positive contributions to their communities.” Joya Misra, Prudence Carter and Adia Harvey Wingfield, Tampa Bay Times.


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BY NextSteps staff

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