School choice expansion and early learning bills approved, school bans vaccinations, and more

School choice bill: The bill that consolidates and significantly expands the state’s K-12 scholarship programs has been approved in the Senate on a 25-14 vote. H.B. 7045 folds the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for special-needs students into a separate scholarship category under the existing the Family Empowerment Scholarship for students of families with lower incomes. It, in turn, boosts the maximum income eligibility to receive a scholarship to 375 percent of the federal poverty level, or $99,375 a year for a family of four. Priority will continue to be given to families whose income does not exceed 185 percent of that benchmark, or $49,025 for that family of four. A legislative analysis projected the bill would make 61,000 more students eligible for scholarships and cost the state $200 million. “We want school choice to be an option for every family,” said Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby. Sen. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, added, “This is a choice we’re making. Do we believe in our families? Do we believe in our parents making the best decision for our children?” The measure now heads to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis. Orlando Sentinel. Politico Florida. redefinED. Florida Politics.

Early learning overhaul: An overhaul of the state’s early learning program was approved by the Senate on Monday. H.B. 419 creates a Division of Early Learning to oversee the pre-K and Florida’s school readiness program for state-subsidized child care, which would set standards and phase in accountability measures such as test scores and learning gains. It would be supervised by the Department of Education and the state Board of Education, which would have the authority to cut off spending to programs that don’t meet the standards or even expel them. “We have been on the march for the last four years to really revamp our VPK system,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, the sponsor of the Senate’s proposal. It now goes to Gov. DeSantis for consideration. Politico Florida.

Budget agreement: Senate and House negotiators agreed Monday night on a $100 billion budget, setting the stage for a vote Friday that would allow the legislative session to end on schedule. A deal was reached on spending $6.69 billion in federal coronavirus relief aid on infrastructure projects, while about $1 billion will go into an emergency fund controlled by Gov. DeSantis, $200 million will be used for $1,000 bonuses for first responders, and $56.4 million will shore up the state’s unemployment assistance fund. What isn’t spent will go into the state’s reserve fund. The chambers also agreed to add another $350 million to the budget, which includes $20 million for Schools of Hope, a program to attract top charter school companies to the state, and $18.4 million for a Florida State University interdisciplinary research commercialization building. News Service of Florida. Orlando Sentinel. Florida Politics. Politico Florida.

Police reform bill: The House has unanimously approved a police reform bill intended to curtail use of excessive force by officers, restrict the use of chokeholds and prohibit the arrest of anyone under the age of 7 for anything other than a forcible felony. The latter provision is named the Kaia Rolle Act, after a 6-year-old girl who was arrested after a temper tantrum at her Orlando school in 2019, handcuffed, placed in the back of a police car and taken to the police station, where she was booked and fingerprinted. One officer was fired for his actions. Associated Press. Politico Florida. Florida Politics. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Also in the Legislature: Also moving through the Legislature on Monday were bills giving colleges and universities the authority to sponsor charter schools, the approval of $644.9 million in the budget for public education capital projects, a requirement that colleges and universities disclose contributions to research projects from China and six other nations, the addition of a “money back guarantee” for students who can’t get a job within six months after completing a state workforce program, restrictions being placed on the use of restraints and seclusion on students with disabilities, and the imposition of a limit on how much and how often school impact fees can be increased. Ready for a final Senate vote today is a bill that would give churches the authority to decide if guns should be allowed on their property, even if there’s a school on the grounds.

Around the state: A private school in Miami tells employees they’ll be fired if they get coronavirus vaccinations, Broward school Superintendent Robert Runcie is accused of lying about whether he contacted witnesses about another criminal case, Hillsborough school board members plan to reset expectations for embattled Superintendent Addison Davis, Pasco schools will continue to require face masks at least until the end of this academic year, and Palm Beach students who choose to continue learning next fall remotely will have a significantly different experience. Here are details about those stories and other developments from the state’s districts, private schools, and colleges and universities:

Miami-Dade: A private school in Miami has told its employees that if they get vaccinated against the coronavirus, they will no longer be allowed to be work at the school. Leila Centner, a cofounder of the Centner Academy in Miami, said in the letter that “reports have surfaced recently of non-vaccinated people being negatively impacted by interacting with people who have been vaccinated. Even among our own population, we have at least three women with menstrual cycles impacted after having spent time with a vaccinated person.” Health experts said both claims are false. New York Times. Miami Herald. WPLG. WFOR. WTVJ. Jim Rigg has been named superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Miami. He replaces Kim Pryzbylski, who had been in the job for 10 years and is retiring June 30. Rigg begins July 6. Chicago Tribune.

Broward: Prosecutors say school Superintendent Robert Runcie was charged with perjury because he told the statewide grand jury that he did not remember talking to any witnesses in the bid-rigging and bribery case against the district’s former chief technology officer Tony Hunter. But he did, prosecutors said, and did so just two days before his grand jury testimony. When asked if he had talked to anyone with information about that case, Runcie said, “No, not that, not that I’m aware of.” The prosecutor pressed the point, asking, “Phone calls? Emails? Text messages? Smoke signals?” Runcie’s reply: “No, not that — I am trying — no. No, I haven’t talked to anyone specifically about that.” School board members meet today to discuss the status of Runcie and general counsel Barbara Myrick, who was also indicted and is accused of illegally releasing grand jury proceedings. Sun Sentinel. WPLG. Miami Herald. WSVN. WTVJ. Did partisan political pressure lead to the arrest of Runcie, as he and his supporters believe? Legal experts are dubious. Sun Sentinel.

Hillsborough: At a retreat this morning, school board members are expected to put together a corrective action plan for Superintendent Addison Davis, who has been a target of intense criticism after the layoffs of more than 1,000 employees to help reduce a $100 million-plus budget deficit. A survey of district administrators released Friday also showed Davis to be a highly unpopular, with 65 percent doubting his ability to lead the school system through its financial crisis. Davis responded to the survey Monday with an email to principals expressing regret and vowing to be a better listener and collaborator. This recalibration of expectations for Davis comes while the district is facing a deadline from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran of 20 days to come up with a plan to fix its finances or risk being taken over by the state. Tampa Bay Times. WFTS.

Palm Beach: About 69,000 county students take classes remotely, but if they choose to continue to next fall they’ll find it’s a much different experience. The virtual option most students have been using follows students’ classes and teachers virtually, with live interaction. Palm Beach Virtual School, a franchise of the Florida Virtual School, has no live daily instruction from a teacher, and students follow an online lesson plan on their own schedule. Palm Beach Post.

Lee: The school district’s student code of conduct is not likely to include a set of best practices offered by Equality Florida, a group that advocates for the civil rights of LGBTQ persons, the audience of about 350 people was told at a contentious school board workshop meeting on Monday that included one man being escorted out because he spoke out of turn. But district officials said denying transgender students access to bathrooms that align with their gender identity, as many of the protesters demanded, is considered discrimination. A vote on the new code of conduct is expected in May. Florida Politics. Fort Myers News-Press. WINK. WFTX. WBBH.

Pasco: Face masks will continue to be required accessories for students and employees in schools and on campuses for the rest of the school year, district officials have announced. But the policy will be reviewed at a later date for the summer and fall sessions. “As a school district, we have worked together to limit the spread of COVID-19 in our schools, and masks have played a large role in that effort,” stated a memo sent to employees. “We remain optimistic that masks will no longer be necessary in the fall, and are making plans for a much more normal 2021-22 school year.” Tampa Bay Times. WFLA.

Manatee: Louis Parker has stepped into the role of chief executive officer at the all-boys Visible Men Academy charter school in Bradenton, a school he helped start in 2013 that has struggled recently with declining enrollment, high staff turnover and financial problems. He replaces the other cofounder, Neil Phillips, who resigned in February. Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

St. Johns: The school board will consider joining other districts in Florida and across the nation in a class-action lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture opioids and the companies that distribute them. The lawsuit alleges that school districts have “suffered significant damages,” including the expenditures of public funds, because of the national opioid epidemic. WJXT.

Marion: The county’s planned development of affordable housing could adversely affect the Hillcrest School’s therapeutic riding program. County-owned land behind the school is targeted for the project. If the project goes through, Hillcrest would lose access to two of the three pastures it has used for 20 years to provide therapeutic horse-rising for students with mental and physical disabilities. Ocala Star-Banner.

Alachua: Buchholz High School’s 83-member math team has won the state math championship for the 13th time in the past 16 years, and will now compete for the national championship in July. Gainesville Sun.

Bay: The Bay High School cheer team won the national championship last weekend in Orlando. The team has won four state titles, but this was its first national championship. Members of the team were celebrated at school Monday. WJHG. WMBB. Panama City News Herald.

Colleges and universities: In-person graduation ceremonies for Southeastern University seniors will be held at 2 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Friday at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. Tickets are limited, and masks and social distancing are required. Lakeland Ledger.

Around the nation: Arkansas has joined the states that may soon offer school choice. Its legislature has approved a bill that creates a state income tax credit program to raise $2 million a year for scholarships for about 250 low-income students. redefinED.

Opinions on schools: H.B. 7045 accelerates the effort begun with the 2019 creation of the Family Empowerment Scholarship to fully integrate all government-regulated choice programs into the state’s education funding system, thereby ensuring their long-term viability and normalization. Doug Tuthill, redefinED. In most human endeavors, we make more of what people want. If people want less of something, they stop purchasing it, quickly sending a signal to producers to make less of it. Americans are fairly unsentimental about producers who ignore their instructions. Consider, for example, the history of the Edsel. Matthew Ladner, redefinED.