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Republicans in Florida Legislature look for deals on education bills

TALLAHASSEE — With lawmakers headed into the session's lightning round, key Republicans this week are gathering to see where they can find compromise on an array of education bills.

"Nothing is dead until sine die," House education policy chairman John Legg, R-Port Richey, said Tuesday, referring to the end of the session.

Most pressing is the proposal to ask voters to loosen the mandates of the 2002 class-size amendment. The House version, sponsored by Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is slated to be taken up on the House floor today. The Senate version, sponsored by Jacksonville Republican Stephen Wise, is still in committee.

Against the backdrop of a huge budget crisis, all kinds of issues are up for discussion, with much horse trading expected in these final few weeks, Legg said.

Here's a quick look at five things out there:

Graduation standards: Former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future has been pushing to raise the curriculum requirements for high school students, phasing in algebra II and geometry as required math classes, and biology I and chemistry as required science classes. In addition, the proposal would increase the required graduation score on the 10th grade FCAT to 3 from 2.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, sponsors the House version, which is headed to the House floor. The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne, is set to be taken up in committee Thursday.

Rising tuition: By now everyone knows the plan is to let all state universities raise tuition as much as 15 percent a year until reaching the national average. Base tuition would go up 8 percent and universities could then add a tuition differential rate hike of up to 7 percent.

What's less well known is that this tuition differential is not covered by Bright Futures scholarships. So, even if you have a 100 percent scholarship, starting next year you're looking at extra costs.

The Prepaid College Board has a deal in place to cover the differential for any contracts sold before July 1, 2007. For contracts sold since then, the board sells tuition differential plans.

Weatherford sponsors the House version, which is ready for a floor vote. The Senate version is still working through committees.

Four-day school weeks? A provision written into House and Senate versions of the state budget clarifies that the school term is 180 days or the hourly equivalent. Translation? Districts will have the flexibility to set the calendar to their needs, be it four-day weeks, longer days before holiday breaks or whatever they dream up.

Bay area districts have discussed the provision, which has their support, but none have shown much interest in changing their calendars.

New standards to qualify for in-state tuition: Want to go to school for Florida's low in-state college tuition? Be prepared with "clear and convincing evidence of continuous residence" for 12 consecutive months prior to the first day of classes if a bill accompanying the Senate higher education budget gets through.

The measure defines that evidence as written or electronic verification including two or more in a list of 13 qualifying documents, including driver's license, homestead exemption, high school transcript or vehicle registration.

A legislative report found colleges were using "inconsistent screening criteria" to determine who qualifies as a Florida resident for tuition purposes.

Given that out-of-state students pay at a much higher rate ($623.75 per credit hour, compared with base tuition of $82.03 for in-state students), the loss in revenue by misclassifications is significant.

Pay teachers first: Legislation in both chambers seeks to make sure teachers and other school employees dealing directly with students are paid fairly as compared to administrators and managers.

Superintendents would be required to ensure salaries of administrators and managers do not exceed twice the average classroom teacher salary for the prior year.

Also, superintendents could not recommend salary increases for administrators or managers unless the salaries for school personnel had increased on a percentage basis more than the proposed increase for administrators/managers before or at the time of the plan.

Republicans in Florida Legislature look for deals on education bills 04/14/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 10:20pm]
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