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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Weatherford says he 'woke up' on issues affecting the poor



When the 2014 legislative session opens next week, House Speaker Will Weatherford will be strongly supporting education bills that would open doors for poor people.

There’s a bill to bring down college tuition for children of undocumented immigrants, a bill expanding private school scholarships for low-income students, and a push to better fund early childhood education.

The Republican leader told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Thursday that it’s all the result of a personal epiphany he experienced recently. Here is some of what he said:

“I kind of woke up about eight or nine months ago, like last summer. And I just realized that -- I was trying to think: Has my party and have I done enough to advocate for the people are in the greatest need? And I kind of came to the conclusion I hadn’t. And I was kind of a little bit frustrated by that and kind of convicted by that so I just decided every speech I give I’m going to start talking about people that are stuck in generational poverty. And I’m going to start digging in and finding out what’s causing it, what helps people get out of it and what’s the state’s role. Not that we can flip a switch and pull people out. But I’ve really spent a lot of time on that and a lot of focus on that, and that’s probably a little outside the norm of maybe what people would have expected me to do. I’ll talk about it in the opening day of session next week.”

Weatherford said that in recent months he has ventured outside the “country club Republican circles” where he has spent a lot of time in the past and “tried to go into neighborhoods and environments that are folks who historically haven’t voted for me or are people who are living in a different economy from everybody else.”

This is not entirely new. One of the slogans for the “work plan” that Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz have crafted for the upcoming session is this: “Expand the pathways out of poverty through education and jobs.” But this was the first time we’ve heard the speaker talk about poverty in this way.

He has put the power of his office behind a bill filed this week by Sen. Jack Latvala that would allow children of undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition.

Weatheford also is pushing a bill that would accelerate the growth of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, which is giving what he called “voucher-esque” grants to low-income children to attend private schools. As many as 30,000 more are on the waiting list; the bill would reduce that by 6,000 or so in the near term, but Weatherford said he eventually wants to get to a place where no student needs to wait for one of the scholarships.

Referring to these and other issues that will help people in poverty, he said: “I’ve got 60 days to try to put some points on the board on that. I’m going to try.”

Also Thursday, Weatherford reiterated his position that he doesn’t favor a pause in the state’s school accountability system as Florida makes the tricky transition to new education standards, chooses a new test to replace the FCAT and makes changes to its school grading formula.

“If you take it away even for a year,” he said of the system, “I think the odds are people will be fighting not to ever bring it back.”

[Last modified: Thursday, February 27, 2014 1:52pm]


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