Weekly Roundup: Common Core Clash; Duke Pact; New House Dem
Around the State
There might not have been a shutdown in Tallahassee this week like the one that finally careened to an end in Washington, but it was still a relatively slow period around state government.
Meanwhile, the Public Service Commission came to "the best resolution at this time" with Duke Energy Florida -- a plan that drew a rebuke from the newest soon-to-be member of the Legislature.
There were a few bursts of movement. The State Board of Education endorsed Gov. Rick Scott's efforts to begin backing away from some items tied to the controversial Common Core State Standards, while Education Commissioner Pam Stewart held public hearings on the standards themselves.
A BUSH-SCOTT RIFT ON SCHOOLS?
For those following the ongoing, wonkish soap opera involving rumors of a rift on education between Scott and former Gov. Jeb Bush, the week provided a few hints into how much truth might be behind those whisperings -- but no real confirmation of any kind.
First came news that Sally Bradshaw, who served as chief of staff under Bush, was leaving the board months before the Dec. 31 end of her term. In a letter, Bradshaw wrote that she was resigning because of "family obligations" -- something that did very little to tamp down speculation that something else was at play.
If there was, Scott certainly didn't let on.
"We are grateful for Sally's service and commitment to ensuring the highest quality in our education system," Scott said. "She has worked hard to continue the legacy of high standards that began under the great leadership of Governor Jeb Bush."
But another former Bush chief of staff, board member Kathleen Shanahan, was among those wondering whether the state was watering down its commitment to Bush's education reform agenda. Shanahan, who has grown increasingly critical of Scott since it became clear she would not be reappointed to the board, was one of two dissenting votes on a proposal to extend a policy to prevent schools from dropping by more than a letter grade on their state-issued report cards.
The "safety net," first used on report cards issued after the 2011-12 school year and continued during the current year, will now cover schools through the 2014-15 year.
Supporters said the extension will buffer schools through the transition to a new testing regime under the Common Core State Standards. The new tests are expected to kick in during the 2014-15 year.
"I do think that it is more important on that final year [of the transition]," said Board Chairman Gary Chartrand.
Shanahan wasn't convinced.
"A four-year safety net becomes a bureaucracy, in my opinion," she said.
And Patricia Levesque, executive director of Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, knocked the school-grading move in a statement issued later Tuesday.
"Florida is in a period of transition to higher standards, and stability and transparency during these times is key," she said. "That transparency provides valuable information on the state of student learning -- what matters most -- even when it's not what we want to hear."
The board also took aim at some of the implementation of Common Core, voting not to adopt a series of "appendices" to Common Core, including items like reading lists or suggested tasks for students. Shanahan also questioned that move, saying the appendices could help teachers. "I don't know why we're disarming the teachers," she said.
Bush has been a strong supporter of Common Core, while Scott has taken steps to distance Florida from a multistate test related to the standards, which almost four dozen states have adopted. Scott also ordered Stewart to hold a series of hearings on the subject.
Those hearings featured speakers on both sides of the issue -- some who called for the end of Common Core, which opponents see as federal intrusion into local schools, and those who promoted the new benchmarks as the way forward for education.
"Common Core is providing a more rigorous and engaging classroom environment. ... Common Core is pushing the students to think beyond a textbook," said Melissa Castro, an 18-year educator with Hillsborough County, during a hearing in Tampa.
But opponents assailed Common Core as potentially wasteful and harmful. Some labeled the changes "education without representation." They said the new standards were almost incoherent and difficult for some students.
Lori Baxley, who has two children, spoke emotionally about how her son, a fourth-grader who previously made straight As, was struggling with his math homework. That made her speak up, Baxley said, not any political considerations.
"The notion this issue is political baffles and frustrates me," she said during the hearing.
Just before the last of the hearings, held Thursday in Tallahassee, Stewart said it's too early to tell what she might recommend to the State Board of Education regarding Florida's education standards.
But she refused to rule out the possibility that Florida would abandon Common Core.
Speaking to reporters before the third public meeting to gather public comments on the standards, Stewart brushed off the idea that the state was "reversing course" on Common Core. But pressed on whether getting rid of Common Core was on the table, Stewart didn't directly answer.
"Well, certainly, that's input," she said. "So, as I said before, we're going to take all of the input and we're going to make a determination of exactly where we want to head as a state as far as moving forward on rigorous standards for our students."
One thing that won't be abandoned, at least not yet, is the charges that customers will pay for a scrapped nuclear power plant and another that's been shuttered as part of a deal between the Public Service Commission and Duke Energy Florida.
For customers, the deal will include an increase in the residential bill of $8.24, about 7 percent, on a 1,000-kilowatt hour bill starting in January.
Under the agreement, approved 4-1 on Thursday, Duke customers will see a freeze on base electric rates maintained through 2018. But they will also fork over an amount translated to $3.45 a month for a residential customer who uses 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity through 2017 to help pay for a scotched plan to build two nuclear reactors in Levy County.
The company spent $1.5 billion on the project, so the charges will go to cover previously approved costs and equipment already purchased.
Another part of the deal involves Duke’s decision to permanently shut down a Crystal River nuclear plant that has been offline since 2009.
The agreement caps the amount Duke can recover at $1.4 billion, of which $295 million will be shifted to stockholders.
The deal marked "the best resolution at this time," PSC Chairman Ronald Brisé said.
"There is now a fence around the things we can control," said Brisé. "It provides a certain level of certainty for a particular amount of time and it also takes off the table Levy (County nuclear plant) and it addresses many other challenges that could come about and would have to go through various processes in order to get some resolution."
But the deal was already coming in for criticism from Pasco County Democrat Amanda Murphy, who on Tuesday won a House seat in a special election to succeed former GOP Rep. Mike Fasano, also a frequent foil of the utilities.
"It is outrageous that the Public Service Commission would agree that ratepayers should be held responsible for another $3.2 billion in fees for a power plant that will never be built," Murphy said in a release on Friday, referencing the full cost of the Duke settlement. "There is no question that the Florida Legislature must act now and repeal the irresponsible nuclear cost fee."
It was one of the first things Murphy did after defeating Republican Bill Gunter in the Tuesday election. She carried 50.8 percent of the vote to Gunter's 49.2 percent.
The win by Murphy, 43, gives Democrats 45 seats in the 120-member House. That is still far short of the 75 seats held by Republicans, but it represents a pickup for the caucus that has long been the minority in the chamber and recently saw a contentious leadership battle. And it gave the party hope as it heads into the midterm elections.
"I think that election in Pasco County was really like a litmus test in terms of where Florida is," said Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, who is slated to take over as House Democratic leader after the 2014 elections.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Democrat Amanda Murphy defeated Republican Bill Gunter in a special election for a House seat in Pasco County.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Let's give teachers a real raise, not Governor Scott's mysterious vanishing raise." -- Mike Weston, a parent, teacher and candidate for the school board in Hillsborough County, on what should be done with the money that would go to implementing Common Core. Scott's much-touted pay raise for educators, approved by the Legislature this spring, has been bogged down in negotiations between local school districts and teachers' unions.