House offers its version to expand school choice, 40,000 students ‘found,’ graduations and more

House voucher bill: The House responded Wednesday to a Senate bill, S.B. 48, that awaits a floor vote and would streamline the state’s K-12 scholarship programs and create education savings accounts for students in those programs. Both bills would merge the McKay and Gardiner scholarship programs for students with disabilities. But the House version, H.B. 7045, which passed the House Education and Employment Committee by a bipartisan 18-3 vote,  would merge those programs into the Family Empowerment Scholarship and leave two others, the Florida Tax Credit and Hope scholarship programs, intact. State Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, the House bill sponsor, said his proposal would  increase the amount per voucher and the number of children eligible to receive one. He also downplayed differences between the bills. “I think both sides want the same thing: more choices for more parents,” Fine said. “How we get there is being looked at a bit differently.” News Service of Florida. Tampa Bay Times and Miami Herald. Politico Florida. Florida Politics.

More from the Legislature: About 40,000 Florida students who “disappeared” from school districts when schools reopened in the fall have been accounted for, state Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, told a Senate subcommittee on Wednesday. Florida’s Office of Economic & Demographic Research estimated in February that enrollment was down 88,000. Florida Phoenix. A parents’ bill of rights prohibiting the infringement on parental authority to direct their children’s education and health care cleared its final committee and is headed to the House floor. Florida Politics. A bill condemning communism and requiring high schools to teach about its victims every Nov. 7 won the approval of a Senate committee. Florida Politics. Prayers before school sporting event could be broadcast over school stadium public address systems under a bill that has passed through all its assigned committees and is now ready for a full House vote. News Service of Florida. Students with disabilities would get help with their post-high school education plans under a proposal approved by a House committee. Florida Politics. A bill that would require the state to be better prepared for public health emergencies and keep schools and businesses open has been approved by a House committee. Associated Press. A Senate subcommittee approved a bill that would deliver free books to elementary students who are reading below grade level. Florida Politics. A bill that would ask voters to decide if Hernando County should have an elected superintendent or an appointed one has begun moving through the Legislature. Hernando Sun. A bill proposed by Hillsborough County students would require the state to provide more information to foster children about their rights regarding abuse, abandonment and neglect. WTVT.

Around the state: Hillsborough school board members will discuss the potential cut of 2,000 jobs at a workshop meeting today, the Palm Beach County School District will pay $2 million to the family of an autistic student who choked to death in school in 2019, a hacker may have gained access to Polk County students’ personal information in 2019, a Brevard teacher has been fired for using medical marijuana, and several school districts are announcing graduation plans. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Broward: A Fort Lauderdale police officer who is an assistant wrestling coach at Cardinal Gibbons High School has been arrested. Broward deputies said Louis James Walsh, 29, is charged with transmission of material harmful to a minor after allegedly engaging in sexually explicit online chats with a Minnesota undercover detective he thought was a young girl and sending a photo over the Internet of his private parts. WPLG. Miami Herald. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough, Tampa Bay: The Hillsborough school district may have to consider cutting up to 2,000 jobs by August because of its deteriorating financial position, according to administrators. Some of the cuts would be through attrition, but others would be layoffs. School board members will discuss their next move at a workshop meeting today. WFTS. Hillsborough County school Superintendent Addison Davis talks about reopening schools, teacher vaccinations and the financial crunch the district is in. WFLA. School officials in Pinellas and Pasco counties have ruled out their students’ participation this spring in Grad Nite celebrations at Busch Gardens and SeaWorld. Hillsborough County is leaving the decisions to school principals. Tampa Bay Times. Some Hillsborough County parents are angry about the district’s decision to limit students to just two guest tickets for high school graduations. WTSP.

Palm Beach: The family of an autistic student who choked to death in August 2019 while eating a chicken nugget at William T. Dwyer High School in Palm Beach Gardens will receive $2 million as part of a lawsuit settlement. The district also agreed to set up a training program for school employees who work with special-needs students. Kedar Williams, 19, had an individual education plan that specified he have an aide assigned to him. That aide was supposed to watch him closely at meal times since Kedar had previous choking incidents. But on the day Kedar died, there was just one aide watching two students, and that aide was attending to the other student. Sun Sentinel.

Duval: A community meeting to discuss the renaming of Andrew Jackson High School got emotional Wednesday night, with opponents calling Jackson a national hero and critics pointing to his slave ownership and violence against native Americans. Jackson High is one of nine Duval schools that would be renamed, and one of three carrying a name that some think is insensitive. A school council is scheduled to decide April 13 on a list of alternative names that will appear on a ballot. WJAX. A Robert E. Lee High School teacher who refused to remove a Black Lives Matter flag from her classroom has been suspended, according to a social media post from an affiliated organization. Administrators said Amy Donofrio’s flag violated school policy. WJXT.

Polk: Personal information about district students may have been exposed when the system was hacked in December 2019, according to a letter recently sent to parents by a vendor, PCS Revenue Control Systems Inc., that had previously worked with the district to get information from parents who applied for free or reduced-price meals. Student names, ID numbers, birth dates and, in some cases, Social Security numbers might have been accessed. WFLA. WTSP. WFTS.

Lee: A nearly 24-acre property east of I-75 and north of the Daniels Parkway has been chosen as a location for a K-8 “innovation” school that’s a joint project between the district and Florida Gulf Coast University. The school will hold up to 1,500 students, and will double as a training center for current and future teachers. District staff will now begin a search for an architect, construction manager and a building official. The project is expected to cost about $75 million and open in the fall of 2024. Fort Myers News-Press.

Brevard: School board members voted this week to fire a Space Coast Junior/Senior High School teacher for using medical marijuana. The teacher, Allison Enright, disclosed her use when she took a drug test after being injured at work. She said she takes a pill with THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, twice a day to help alleviate pain from several health conditions, and had no idea doing so violated the district’s policy. Medical marijuana is legal in Florida but not on the federal level, and the district must maintain a drug-free workplace in order to qualify for federal grants. Florida Today. WKMG. WOFL.

Osceola: A school board committee formed to evaluate the district’s school resource officer program and make recommendations for changes has finalized questions for a survey for students and employees. The group was formed after an officer recently slammed a 16-year-old student to the ground while trying to break up a fight at Liberty High School in Poinciana. The officer is on leave while the FDLE investigates the incident. Orlando Sentinel.

Seminole: The first black student to attend a public school in the county said she had a sense of “wonderment” when she prepared to attend Sanford Junior High School in 1964. Ingrid Burton Nathan said she just wanted to make her parents proud. Her school days were lonely, she said, and she was often a target of hostility. After high school graduation, she went to Florida Southern College, graduated and returned to Seminole County to teach Spanish at Lake Brantley and Lake Mary High schools for more than 35 years. WKMG.

Manatee: School board members have approved a proposal to change the name of the administration building to the Walter E. Miller School Support Center to honor a longtime district employee and school board member. Miller died two years ago of heart failure at the age of 83. “He devoted 40 years to the children and employees of Manatee County,” said his wife Mary. Bradenton Herald.

Collier: A math teacher and boys varsity basketball coach at Immokalee High School has been arrested and accused of battery, distributing obscene material to a child, and transmission of material harmful to minors. Deputies said Travis Westberry, 30, inappropriately touched one student and sent nude photos to another. Westberry told deputies he has struggled with sex addiction and undergone therapy for it. Collier school officials said Westberry has been fired. Naples Daily News. WINK. WBBH.

Sarasota: Graduations for Booker, Riverview, Sarasota and Suncoast Polytechnical high schools will be held during the first week of June at Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, which is home to the Baltimore Orioles during spring training. That same week, Venice and North Port high schools will hold ceremonies in their football stadiums, Oak Park will do graduation in the school’s gymnasium, and the Pine View School is negotiating with the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall for its ceremony. Sarasota Herald-Tribune. About $30 million is heading to the school district from the latest federal coronavirus relief package, chief financial officer Mitsi Corcoran told school board members this week. About $25 million will be used to reimburse the district for coronavirus-related expenses, including safety equipment, academic programs and staff training. The rest will go to charter schools. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Escambia: School board members expressed a willingness to pursue a change in an agreement with the county to build more sidewalks that connect with existing ones so students can safely walk to schools. School officials said developers are building too many “sidewalks to nowhere,” making it difficult for children to walk to school. Pensacola News Journal.

Bay: The school district ranks eighth among state districts for its students’ improvement in passing Advanced Placement exams over the past decade. In 2020, 31.3 percent of Bay students scored a passing grade of 3 or higher on an AP exam. District officials said the achievement was particularly impressive considering the devastation Hurricane Michael caused the district in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic of the past year. Panama City News Herald. The school district will receive $24 million from the federal coronavirus relief package. About $5.2 million will be used for mental health services, $3.3 million will be used for sanitizing and disinfecting schools and HVAC systems, and $5 million will go to charter schools. WMBB. WJHG.

Flagler: The school district is planning to hold high school graduations June 2 at the Ocean Center in Daytona Beach. There will be limited seating, and the ceremonies will be livestreamed. Flagler Live. This week’s school board meeting was filled with people protesting against mask policies and rights for transgender students. The commenters were thanked by school board members, who gave no indication that they would be changing the district’s established policies on either issue. Flagler Live.

Colleges and universities: Florida International University in Miami will resume a normal class schedule this summer, school officials have announced. Miami Herald. Nova Southeastern University will pay $5.5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that alleged the school’s dental students used improperly sterilized equipment on hundreds of patients. Sun Sentinel. A federal judge has denied Lynn University’s request to dismiss a lawsuit over the Boca Raton school’s decision not to issue partial tuition and fees refunds when classes moved online because of the pandemic. Law 360. The Helios Education Foundation has donated $1.4 million to the Florida College Access Network, a statewide organization located at the University of South Florida that helps adults earn college degrees. University of South Florida. The University of North Florida’s Osprey Racing team’s open-wheel, single-seat racecar will compete in a Formula SAE event in May at the Michigan International Speedway. Florida Times-Union.

Teacher salaries: A year after Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill allocating $500 million to boost starting teacher pay to $47,500, or as close as possible to it, only a handful of districts have been able to reach that standard and it’s unclear how fast those that fell short can get there. Now DeSantis is asking the Legislature to allocate another $550 million to “continue raising the minimum K-12 teacher salary to $47,500, as well as the salaries of other instructional personnel.” Florida Phoenix.

Federal aid for schools: The state now has access to about $4.7 billion from the federal coronavirus relief bill to “get more schools opened safely this spring and work to close the gaps in education equity that the pandemic has exacerbated,” according to the Biden administration. While the state still doesn’t have guidance from the federal government on how the money should be spent, the Florida Department of Education is telling superintendents the money should be used for nonrecurring expenses for the 2021-2022 academic year, particularly “needs that will not exist after Florida’s recovery from the pandemic.” Among the suggestions are helping economically disadvantaged children and students with disabilities, buying sanitation supplies and training staff how to use them, buying technology hardware and software, providing students with mental health services and tracking school attendance. Florida Phoenix.

Kindergarten readiness: Enrollment in the state’s voluntary pre-kindergarten program is down 22 percent this year, and educators are worried that will translate to more students not being ready for kindergarten in the fall. A recent report concluded that kindergarten readiness is at 57 percent. WFTS.

Input on testing sought: The state Department of Education is soliciting comments from parents about statewide testing that begins in early April. Opinions can be emailed to essa@fldoe.org by March 31. WKMG.

Around the nation: The Biden administration is putting an emphasis on using coronavirus testing to regularly screen Americans at school or work. Doing so, officials believe, will provide an early warning system of the existence of virus variants before they can spread widely. Politico.

Education podcasts: Central Florida Urban League leader Glen Gilzean talks with Step Up For Students president Doug Tuthill about the group’s plan to create micro-schools and school models to better serve students in juvenile detention, and how micro-schools can be an economic engine to counteract generational poverty. redefinED.

Opinions on schools: If Florida lawmakers are trying to “cripple” public schools, as education choice opponents have been saying for more than 20 years, they’re failing miserably. The state’s graduation rate has gone from 50 percent to 90 percent in the past 20 years, is 3rd in K-12 achievement, according to Education Week, and is 2nd in America in the percentage of graduating seniors who’ve passed college-caliber Advanced Placement exams. All this, even though Florida has a higher rate of low-income students than all but 11 states – and ranks No. 42 in per-pupil spending. Ron Matus, Florida Times-Union. If legislators are looking to fix something, pick something that’s actually broken — like this state’s sorry unemployment system. Not how to fund the Bright Futures Scholarships program. Scott Maxwell, Orlando Sentinel. I’m not sure where Ron DeSantis received his introduction to Critical Race Theory, but as a practitioner and proponent of CRT, I know that his representation of this rigorous, multidisciplinary, racial justice-oriented body of theoretical and empirical scholarship is deeply flawed, dangerous and promotes white racial resentment. Ted Thornhill, Fort Myers News-Press. S.B. 86’s requirement that first-year college students receive career counseling so that they understand the career prospects for the majors they are considering would come years too late. Paul Cottle, Bridge to Tomorrow.