Bill changing state pension advances, district bans gender-based graduation caps and gowns, and more

In the Legislature: A bill that would gradually end the traditional pension system for state employees, including teachers, passed on a party-line vote Thursday in the Senate Government and Accountability Committee. S.B. 84 would allow state workers hired on or after July 1, 2022, to enroll only in a 401(k)-style investment plan. Currently, state workers can choose between the pension plan and the investment fund. Republicans said the long-term viability of the $160 billion retirement system is endangered by escalating costs and dwindling returns. Democrats argue that the pension draws workers to government jobs, and that phasing it out would create more financial problems in the future because fewer people would be paying into it. More than 1 million state workers are enrolled in the state retirement system, with 74 percent choosing the traditional pension and 26 percent opting for the 401(k)-style fund. News Service of Florida. Politico Florida. A bill that would establish free book deliveries to the homes of elementary students who struggle with reading was unanimously approved Thursday by the House Early Learning and Elementary Education Subcommittee. Florida Politics.

Education and the Legislature: Education issues will be prominent during the legislative session that begins March 2. Among the issues being considered are a bill consolidating K-12 scholarship programs and opening educating savings accounts for parents of students in those programs, whether students and schools should be held accountable for statewide assessments results, continued funding for teacher raises, the state budget and its impact on education funding, and whether state colleges must measure the diversity of intellectual freedom on campuses. Florida Phoenix.

Around the state: The Palm Beach County district’s superintendent expects online and remote learning to be a part of the next school year, Palm Beach schools are no longer permitted to have different colored caps and gowns for graduations, teachers of the year are named in the Miami-Dade and Okaloosa school districts, events are planned in Broward to mark the third anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, a searchable database of crimes in schools is launched by the father of a student who died in the Parkland shooting, Escambia’s school district launches an “8th Period” tutoring program, and the oldest charter school in Pasco County announces plans to expand. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts and private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: Teresa Murphy, who teaches an online 4th-grade class at Spanish Lake Elementary School in Hialeah, has been named the Miami-Dade County School District’s teacher of the year. The other finalists were: Candice Morris, a 3rd-grade teacher at Goulds Elementary; Denise White, who teaches science to incarcerated middle and high school students at the Juvenile Justice Center School in Miami; and Yolette Mezadieu, who teaches career and business education at Miami Edison Senior High. Nerissa Manela, a music teacher at Morningside K-8 Academy, was chosen as the rookie teacher of the year. Miami Herald. WSVN.

Broward: A variety of events and commemorations are planned between now and Feb. 14 to mark the third anniversary of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland and honor the victims. Seventeen students and employees were killed by a gunman. Sun Sentinel.

Palm Beach: County schools can no longer have different colored caps and gowns for graduating girls and boys. The four schools that had planned to have gender-specific colors will have to adjust. District officials said using different colors conflicts with the rights of transgender and nonbinary students. Palm Beach Post. Superintendent Donald Fennoy said Thursday that the district’s use of both in-person and remote learning will most likely continue into the 2021-2022 academic year. “I told my team, we’re going to keep preparing and improving our distance learning platforms, because who knows?” he said. “I’m just going to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.” Fennoy said that dual-learning system concerns him because many remote learners are falling behind both academically and socially. “The long-term effects of this are really worrying me,” he  said. “I still am encouraging families and pushing to get our kids that are struggling back in the schools.” WPTV. The number of county students back in school is now 52 percent of the total. In elementary schools, 69 percent are in classrooms. Forty-eight percent of middle-schoolers have returned, and just 34 percent of high school students. Palm Beach Post.

Pasco: The first charter school in the county has announced plans to expand into the southwest corner of the county. Dayspring Academy wants to operate a K-5 school in Holiday that would open in the fall of 2022 with about 160 students in kindergarten through 3rd grade, then add a grade and 50 students in each of the next two years. John Legg, a former state legislator who founded Dayspring 22 years ago, said the curriculum would be based on the existing arts-oriented model. Tampa Bay Times.

Osceola: The Freedom from Religion Foundation has written a letter to the school board challenging the reciting of prayers at board meetings. The board is trying to contact the foundation for clarification on what it finds objectionable. WESH.

Volusia: Both the Florida Department of Education and an appellate court have ruled that a technology-focused charter elementary school in Ormond Beach should be allowed to open, and school officials are planning to do so in August. But the school board, which twice denied applications from Florida East Coast Charter School, is continuing to appeal the decisions and board attorney Ted Doran said he’s prepared to take the case to the Florida Supreme Court. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

St. Lucie, Martin, Indian River: The number of students in the Martin County voluntary pre-K program has dropped from 227 last year to about 200 this year. Jennifer Corkern, director of pre-K programs, said many parents were uncomfortable sending their children during a pandemic. St. Lucie County has filled all 320 of its pre-K slots, and Indian River County has just three openings in its 164-seat program. TCPalm.

Escambia: Pensacola High School launched an “8th Period” after-school tutoring program this week to help students who have been falling behind. The program, which is staffed by teachers, is open to any student and will continue at least through the end of the school year. It’s open Monday through Saturday. About 40 students have signed up for help. Pensacola News Journal.

Okaloosa: Jessica Landry, a 5th-grade math and science teacher at Plew Elementary School, has been named the Okaloosa County School District’s teacher of the year. Northwest Florida Daily News.

Citrus: School board members are expected to decide at Tuesday’s meeting how the district will conduct graduation ceremonies and bring volunteers back into schools. The district has announced its intent to hold traditional commencement ceremonies, and is proposing to bring volunteers back in phases. Citrus County Chronicle.

Flagler: A 12-year-old student at Bunnell Elementary School has been arrested and accused of threatening to commit a mass shooting at the school. He told deputies he was joking. It was the third arrest for threats to a Flagler school in eight days. Flagler Live. WFTV. WTLV. Daytona Beach News-Journal.

Columbia: Security has been added at county schools after a Columbia High School student was shot and killed and another student was wounded in Lake City this week. Grief counselors were also on hand. Dionne Leslie was a 17-year-old sophomore. WJXT.

Gulf: Students were back at Wewahitchka High School on Thursday after being sent home Wednesday morning while authorities investigated a written threat against the school. WJHG.

School crimes database: A searchable database of crimes in schools has been launched by the father of a student who was killed in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting nearly three years ago. Max Schachter started the Safe Schools for Alex database to honor his son. It uses data from the Florida Department of Education. “Prior to this site being created by Safe Schools for Alex, parents had no idea,” Schachter said. “Schools aren’t going to be transparent and tell you that we had a hundred fights last year.” WPLG.

Colleges and universities: The University of South Florida’s Sarasota-Manatee campus is expanding its shadowing program to the Manasota Black Chamber of Commerce. For years, the school has worked with the Sarasota and Manatee chambers to match students with local executives. Bradenton Herald. Broward College has received a $377,000 from the Florida Blue Foundation to set up three food pantries over the next four years. WLRN.

Around the nation: Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican U.S. representative from Georgia, has been barred by her colleagues from taking her assigned seat on the House Education and Labor Committee. Among Greene’s many controversial social media posts and statements over the years are ones that question whether several school shootings, including the one in Parkland, really happened. Education Week.