Editorial Roundup: Florida

Orlando Sentinel. September 13, 2021.

Editorial: At least one legislator is standing up for Florida’s diminished public records law

It’s good to see that not every lawmaker has surrendered to the relentless, decades-long, bipartisan legislative assault on open government in Florida.

State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat, is suing the Florida Department of Health and the surgeon general to release detailed records about the spread of COVID.

Smith’s request in July for COVID-19 information, broken down by age, was rejected by the state. Officials cited an exemption to the state’s public records law, an exemption that Florida law says can be lifted “when necessary to public health.” The state didn’t even attempt to explain how withholding basic health data was in the public’s best interest.

Smith, along with the Florida Center for Government Accountability, are accurately arguing that it’s necessary to public health for Floridians to have age-specific information about COVID, especially with the start of a new school year.

They’re absolutely right.

But they’re also dealing with an administration that doesn’t even bother to hide its contempt for open government.

More than that, they’re dealing with executive and legislative branches that every year attempt to undermine Florida’s constitutionally guaranteed access to public records and public meetings by creating new exemptions.

This state’s once enviable open government law has been hollowed out by a GOP-led Legislature. The Republicans in charge have been abetted by a Democratic minority that — thanks to a supermajority requirement in the constitution — still possesses enough votes to stop new exemptions from passing, but rarely uses that power.

More often, Democrats are siding with Republicans in shutting off avenues of information, everything from property records to Public Service Commission meetings.

A noxious bill that would make elected legislators’ home addresses secret, rendering it impossible to know if they live in the district they represent, actually passed through three Senate committees — gaining Republican and Democratic votes — before it finally died. It’ll be back.

Imagine if, instead of focusing so much energy on making less information available to the public, the government used its imagination to make getting information easier.

For starters, it could crack down on local and state government bureaucrats who deliberately thwart the public’s requests for information. These days, it’s common for public records demands to simply go unanswered, or get slow-walked, or require the payment of massive fees that many people can’t afford. The penalties for those abuses ought to be far more severe and more common.

But where does that kind of reform begin? Certainly not with Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose own departments consistently flout the law.

The Orlando Sentinel has gone to court twice this year over the administration’s refusal to release public records related to the COVID outbreak.

In one case, the newspaper was trying to get weekly White House coronavirus reports. In the other case, it was trying to get better information about COVID variants. In both cases, the press prevailed, and in both cases, the state wasted time and money opposing simple requests for public information.

Now the state is stonewalling an elected representative who wasn’t asking for names or personal health information of any kind. Smith was asking for 14 days of data — case counts, positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths and vaccinations — broken down by age group.

The request was made in late July, ahead of the new school year. Parents and policy-makers — including school boards — had a compelling need to know what they were confronting as thousands of students prepared to head back to class amid the devastating summer surge of COVID cases.

The state had the data, but just didn’t want to provide it. Officials had all but shut down the flow of COVID information in early June after DeSantis decided to lift an emergency declaration, feeling it was time to get back to normal.

But COVID’s delta variant didn’t care about the governor’s feelings or his political agenda. The disease tore through Florida, straining health-care systems and creating uncertainty about how to handle the start of school.

There was nothing to be lost in giving Floridians more information, and everything to gain. Instead, the state dug in its heels and refused Smith’s request.

Now he’s taking the state to court.

Good. Maybe Smith’s courage will infect his fellow Democrats, who for too long have done little to nothing to halt the erosion of Florida’s open government laws.

This state needs at least one party that’s willing to stand up for the bedrock principle that open government is better government.

We know from experience where Republicans stand on this issue. The question is whether Democrats will finally stand with them or against them.

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Tampa Bay Times. September 15, 2021.

Editorial: Florida schools need help with COVID, not more petty arguments

Students and teachers need more resources as campus quarantines disrupt academics.

Let’s not pretend that COVID-19 is in the mirror, that schools have returned to normal or that students and teachers are safely ensconced in on-campus learning environments. A new wave of infections has forced thousands of Florida students and teachers into isolation and quarantine — leaving many students adrift, classrooms without adequate teachers and student performance again at risk from an interrupted school year.

A Tampa Bay Times report Tuesday showed the continuing toll that quarantines are having on the academic experience. Boca Ciega High senior Matthew McCrary recalled sitting in the school auditorium four of seven periods one recent day because so many teachers were out. “It is very difficult,” he said. “We don’t get assignments and we’re falling behind.” Tatyana Arnold, a teacher at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg, said teachers are juggling on any given day to cover for missing colleagues. “This is even harder than in a normal year,” said Sarah Khattabi, another teacher at Hopkins.

Of course, the 2021 fall semester was supposed to usher in the recovery, as students who opted for virtual learning during the pandemic last year returned to brick-and-mortar classrooms. School districts readied to help students make up for lost time, with the reopening of campuses signaling a larger return to normalcy. But the opposite has happened, as coronavirus infections reached last year’s level after only one month, sending thousands of children and teachers into quarantine. Students have been left to languish, as the state stopped paying for remote instruction. And schools have struggled to plug the gaps with substitute teachers.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran are only making conditions worse by battling with school districts that have imposed temporary mask mandates to counter this upheaval in the classroom. As a practical matter, it’s probably too late in the semester to offer dual learning options. But the state and local school districts need to provide more resources to help students and staff alike weather the tumult on campus. Many teachers, as usual, are going above and beyond by making themselves available during their off-hours. But the situation demands a strategy more organized than a volunteer effort. And it shouldn’t fall only to parents or classmates to help students in quarantine keep up with their assignments.

Hillsborough County has responded by launching new online initiatives for students at home wishing to stay current with their lessons. For prekindergarten through fifth grade, Hillsborough is establishing a group of virtual instructors who are on-call to take questions from students about their class materials. The teachers won’t deliver lessons, but will be available for support. For students in middle and high schools, which offer many more courses, the district contracted to provide access to online tutors 24 hours a day. These stop-gap measures should help maintain some continuity in the educational process.

But school children don’t have time on their side. The ongoing legal battle in Florida over school mask mandates, and the investigation the U.S. Department of Education announced Friday into whether the state’s ban on the mandates violates federal law by putting students with disabilities at heightened health risk, won’t be resolved in time for many students to keep from falling further behind. There has to be some middle ground between the governor’s political motivations and the costs that students are paying because of these disruptions to academic life. Wish as we may, the pandemic isn’t over, and pretending it is only prolongs the fight.

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Miami Herald. September 14, 2021.

Editorial: After badgering public schools, DeSantis got something right and it’s a big deal

Finally, after spending the past two months threatening school districts, Gov. Ron DeSantis has come up with a great idea for public education.

He wants to eliminate the Florida Standards Assessments — three words that teachers hate, students dread and parents stress over. So much hinges on the FSA and those hours of test-taking that happen every spring: teacher performance evaluations, school grades and student self esteem.

DeSantis wants to replace that testing model starting in the 2022-23 school year with student “progress monitoring” three times a year that would reduce testing by 75% and allow for more individualized assessment that helps teachers make adjustments during the school year.

OUTDATED TEST

“The FSA is, quite frankly, outdated,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the Doral Academy Tuesday. “It takes days to administer, leaving less time for student learning. It is not customizable to each student, which we do have the capability now with algorithms to do. It fails to provide timely information to parents, which, as we know, is very critical that information be provided for them.”

We agree. After weeks of calling out the governor’s bullying and misguided behavior as he sought to punish school officials who enacted mask mandates, we can say we think DeSantis has the right idea here. So do teacher unions and many parents. Perhaps that’s precisely what DeSantis is looking for: a chance to prove he cares about children after trying to force them to into schools that don’t require their classmates to mask up.

(We also can’t help noticing that with this move, DeSantis would be undoing the standardized testing legacy of former Gov. Jeb Bush, which would no doubt make a certain Mar-a-Lago resident and DeSantis-whisperer very happy.)

But in this case, his motivations matter a lot less than getting it right.

Using algorithms and technology to build tests for each student’s needs? We like that.

Providing test scores before the school year ends, instead of waiting until kids are home for the summer? Ditto.

“Progress monitoring” throughout the year (however that might work)? Sounds good — in theory.

LAWMAKERS TO DECIDE

Until lawmakers start drafting legislation ahead of next year’s session, we won’t know if the cure will be worse than the disease. Could the end result be three annual standardized tests instead of one, created with little teacher input by a corporation somewhere in Texas? Will teachers continue to teach for tests if their performance in the classroom continues to be so tightly connected to student scores?

And will the new system be the product of bipartisanship and cooperation with teachers and parents, or just another partisan measure that appeals to the fringes of the GOP and not to average Floridians — as was much of the legislation that came out of this year’s legislative session and DeSantis’ latest attacks on local governance?

“I implore my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to leave partisanship at the door and maintain a willingness to ultimately do what’s right for schools across the state,” Democratic Sen. Shevrin Jones of Miami Gardens, vice-chair of the Senate Education Committee, said in a statement.

Sen. Manny Diaz, a Hialeah Republican who sits on the Senate Education Committee, told the Editorial Board legislative leaders are having conversations about how the new system will impact school grades and teacher evaluations. “Progress monitoring” would allow teachers to focus on specific parts of the curriculum in shorter periods of time and make adjustments when students are falling behind, he said.

He added that standardized testing has always been too focused on the “end product” and not the process of learning.

We agree. Parents agree. Teachers agree.

But, as Diaz said it himself, “the devil is in the details.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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South Florida Sun Sentinel. September 10, 2021.

Editorial: Florida’s well-fed governor heartlessly lets kids go hungry

Ron DeSantis loves food. Who doesn’t? As Florida’s governor travels constantly around the state, he pays feel-good visits to Mom-and-Pop restaurants to salute their contributions to the economy and sample their mouth-watering treats.

On Thursday, it was Dominic’s Deli & Eatery in Palm Coast, according to the governor’s Twitter feed. The day before, he tried the scratch-built bagels at Bagelheads in Pensacola. “Delicious,” he tweeted. He earlier took his four-year-old daughter Madison to Buc-ee’s, where she tried its cotton candy-flavored Dippin’ Dots ice cream.

But the governor has coldly turned his back on an estimated 2.1 million children across Florida who live in fear of not always knowing where their next meal will come from. This colossal blunder underscores how DeSantis fails to adequately protect Floridians during the pandemic.

Florida is by far the largest state that has refused to apply for $820 million in pandemic food benefits. The money would have lifted up many of Florida’s poorer families, a disproportionate share of which live in South Florida, where the cost of living is beyond the reach of many.

A spike over the summer

The federal government offered the money in April to help struggling families catch up from a spike in food costs over the summer because schools or child care facilities were closed and could not offer kids free or reduced-price meals. For many low-income children in Florida, the food they get in school is the best nutrition they receive. DeSantis resolutely ignored the program.

That $820 million is a huge number, but it doesn’t go very far in a state as big as Florida. It works out to a one-time benefit of $375 per child or $6.82 a day for two months under a program known as SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Childhood hunger is a very serious problem in America. The advocacy group No Kid Hungry says nearly one of every four kids in Florida lives in a food insecure home, meaning not enough food for every family member to live a food-healthy life.

Alabama accepted the money. So did Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana and nearly 40 other states, according to the Department of Agriculture.

Texas enthusiastically took the money, and Gov. Greg Abbott thanked state and federal agencies “for working together to ensure Texas families can continue to put food on the table. This third round of pandemic food benefits will help us continue to provide access to nutritious food for both families and their children.”

But not Florida.

Too many hungry kids

A spokeswoman for DeSantis, Christina Pushaw, suggested the state didn’t need the money because schools are open and provide free and reduced-price lunches. “Schools are not remote in Florida, and children receive nutrition directly from schools,” Pushaw told the Tampa Bay Times.

That’s not the point. The government provides the money to help families retroactively recoup some of their food costs over the summer.

U.S. Rep. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, who represents poor, rural communities across North Florida, initiated a letter to DeSantis signed by all 10 Democrats in the Florida congressional delegation. “We have children going to school hungry, and struggling with hunger after school, on the weekends and during the summer,” Lawson told the governor. “Not applying for these federal funds will continue to exasperate food insecurities for many of our families.”

In a letter spearheaded by the Florida Policy Institute, dozens of community groups, businesses and churches also urged DeSantis to take the money. “The well-being of children is of the utmost importance as we all continue to navigate policy solutions amid the pandemic,” said the institute, calling the money “an integral part of reducing food insecurity.”

Among the groups signing the letter were the Florida PTA, League of Women Voters, Feeding South Florida, city of West Palm Beach and the United Way in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

A lack of compassion

Rejecting this money heightens the tremendous economic anxiety afflicting Florida many families. It’s another example of DeSantis’ disastrous leadership during the pandemic.

While inexcusable, it’s hardly surprising, considering DeSantis’ longstanding lack of compassion for Floridians. He showed no interest in expanding Medicaid to improve the health care safety net. He opposed increasing the exceedingly stingy jobless benefit of $275 for a maximum of 12 weeks. He cut off a federal unemployment benefit of $300 a week.

When you’re poor and hungry and struggling to make ends meet, every dollar makes a difference. The additional money would have paid for food at groceries and at the food businesses that DeSantis professes to support so enthusiastically.

As Rep. Lawson noted in his letter, there’s no deadline to apply for the money because it’s applied retroactively. DeSantis still has time to right this wrong. Hungry kids are waiting. All he has to do is ask.

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Palm Beach Post. September 10, 2021.

Editorial: Gators on downtown sidewalks? Yes, pave way for UF campus

South Florida long has been considered a “brain desert” by some outside the state, a place to play in the sun but not take seriously from an intellectual or corporate standpoint, except maybe as a jumping-off spot for commerce with the Southern Hemisphere.

One sure way to counter that damaging and outdated perception and more importantly improve our lives and our children’s, is to bolster the region’s academic offerings, from pre-K to post-grad. The recent initiative by the county and city mayors to attract a University of Florida campus to downtown West Palm Beach would be a tremendous step in that direction.

South Florida’s fun-in-the-sun image has outlived the reality of the region. While many of us chose Florida for its quality of life, we’ve worked for decades to build on that foundation exceptional cultural, academic and commercial offerings. We may not have the deep bench of a Boston or New York, but we also (usually) don’t have their cloudy skies, impassable traffic or nearly the breadth of their social ills, let alone state income taxes. And in recent years we have seen West Palm Beach and its environs make swift and substantive advances, not just in livability but as a center for medical research, financial services and tech entrepreneurship.

Those gains have come while our traditional industries – hospitality and real estate -- have diversified and grown more sophisticated, even while weathering cycles of recession and the pandemic.

For West Palm Beach, a University of Florida campus would enhance that growth and the city’s vitality and personality, while bringing life to the quiet western edge of downtown where it is proposed, along Tamarind Avenue, between the Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Datura Street.

It would occupy an assemblage of lots once considered for the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, near the courthouses and across Tamarind from the future transportation/office/residential/retail hub known as the Transit-Oriented Village, with its stations for trains, buses and trolleys, a major piece of a future that deemphasizes automobile commuting.

The school would have the potential to create jobs for residents of underserved neighborhoods just north of downtown. Its students, faculty and other employees would provide customers for downtown shops, restaurants, bars and other entertainment venues. The new arrivals would populate the downtown’s recently redesigned streetscapes, with their widened sidewalks, expanded outdoor dining and plaza-like roadways. In short the school would invigorate what’s now, at night, a too-quiet section of downtown and benefit the entire city center.

More importantly, as UF President Kent Fuchs told the West Palm Beach city commission on Aug. 30, the school, which ranks 6th among U.S. public universities, would bring to our doorstep all of its ambition to create a world-class graduate program at the intersection of technology and finance, much as Fuchs orchestrated in Manhattan in his former role as Cornell University provost.

To be sure, giving the university the site likely would remove a swath of valuable property from taxation, depriving the city of revenues it sorely needs. Some universities, Yale, Harvard and Brown among them, make payments in lieu of taxes, to compensate cities for services those schools receive. Something to consider here.

The UF presence also threatens to disrupt relationships between West Palm Beach and institutions of higher learning already in our midst, whether Florida Atlantic University, Palm Beach State College, Keiser University, Palm Beach Atlantic University or others.

Fuchs promised collaboration with the county’s colleges, however, as well as public schools and corporations that the county, city, Business Development Board and Chamber of Commerce have been recruiting. UF needs to be held to that promise.

Fuchs envisions a focused graduate campus that would generate jobs, attract companies and develop the region’s economy, while helping the university achieve a level of quality in tech and finance that it can’t do from its home in Gainesville. The opportunity for the university, city and county would be “not just transformational but magical,” he said.

The campus would open in the fall of 2026.

We believe the land the city and county would advance toward the project is worth the investment. Anything done to attract the best and brightest will elevate all of us and create countless synergies. We support the initiative and encourage county and city leaders to continue thinking big.

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