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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Controversies Dog Rick Scott, DCF, DOE

July 25, 2013 - 6:00pm

As the Trayvon Martin-inspired siege of the state Capitol closed out its second week, testing Gov. Rick Scott (and the patience of some Capitol denizens), there were plenty of other discussions about tragic fatalities, treatment of young people and tests.

State agencies were defending Florida's record of caring for children on at least two fronts, with the U.S. Department of Justice suing over the placement of children with disabilities in nursing homes and critics continuing to raise questions about whether the Department of Children and Families did enough to prevent the deaths of children.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Education released the current report cards for elementary and middle schools just a week after legislative leaders had pushed for the agency to chuck its plans for joining a group of other states in using a new test in the near future.

And when it was all over, the Dream Defenders-led protesters remained camped outside Scott's office, demanding the governor call a special session to address the state's self-defense laws and other policies.

DAYLIGHT COME AND (DON'T) WANNA GO HOME:

As the second week of the sit-in dragged on, there was no sign that the protesters were giving up. On Thursday night, the evening before musical artist and political activist Harry Belafonte visited to show his support for the group, 86 people spent the night outside Scott's office as FDLE officers rang up overtime hours standing watch.

Early in the week, Scott had drawn a hard line against giving in to the protestors' main demand: a special session to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, which became a subject of national debate during the Martin shooting case that ended in George Zimmerman's acquittal.

Zimmerman was accused of second-degree murder after he fatally shot the 17-year-old Martin last year. Though Zimmerman claimed self-defense, his attorneys didn't use Stand Your Ground as a defense in the trial.

"They've asked for something that you know I'm not going to do, I'm not going to call a special session," Scott said early Monday after meeting with Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters.

In addition to their opposition to the Stand Your Ground law, the students have tried to leverage state and national attention to discuss juvenile justice laws, such as a zero-tolerance policy in schools and issuing civil citations to juveniles with clean records who are accused of misdemeanors.

Scott, who steered clear of the Capitol building all week, dispatched Walters to try to calm the activists. It didn't seem to work.

"Many of the concerns that you brought to (Scott) are concerns that he feels very strongly about, that he shares," Walters told the protesters. "We have been working very hard to reform the juvenile justice system."

But Dream Defenders spokeswoman Ciara Taylor noted that the group had pushed legislation including their ideas during the 2013 session.

"And you were silent the entire legislative session on those bills," Taylor told Walters. "So what exactly are you pushing that you feel is going to make a positive change?"

'ANYBODY BUT DCF':

Also showing little sign of slowing down was the fallout from the resignation of DCF Secretary David Wilkins, who abruptly stepped down July 18 after the deaths of four children who had at least drawn the attention of child-welfare officials. A fifth died in the days after Wilkins' resignation.

On Friday, interim DCF Secretary Esther Jacobo directed Assistant Secretary Pete Digre to head up an investigation into the deaths.

"This analysis is the department's No. 1 priority and I want you to deploy whatever resources are necessary to accomplish this as expeditiously as possible," Jacobo wrote.

The latest child to die, 2-year-old Jayden Villegas-Morales, was taken off life support Sunday. His father, Angel Luis Villegas, is accused of shaking him in frustration over the boy's repeated vomiting, according to The Miami Herald.

At least one judge said, in so many words, enough was enough.

"They need to get out of the child-protection investigation business," Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Cindy Lederman said of the department. Whether law-enforcement agencies or local community-based care organizations conduct the investigations doesn't matter, Lederman said. "Anybody but DCF."

Meanwhile, the federal government filed suit against the state over Florida children with disabilities who are placed in nursing homes. In a 23-page complaint filed Monday, the Department of Justice argued that Florida should have taken greater steps to provide services to children in their family homes and communities, rather than in nursing facilities.

"The state discriminates against children and young adults with disabilities by administering and funding its programs and services for these individuals in a manner that has resulted in their prolonged and unnecessary institutionalization in nursing facilities or placed them at risk of such institutionalization in violation" of the Americans with Disabilities Act, said the lawsuit, filed in federal court in South Florida.

The state has pushed back. Liz Dudek, secretary of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration, said the state has taken steps this year that, in part, led to 31 children being discharged from nursing facilities and others being diverted.

"Florida has made many improvements in its already strong program of caring for medically complex children and helping their families cope with their everyday challenges," Dudek said in a prepared statement Monday. "Todays Obama administration action shows that Washington is not interested in helping families improve but instead is determined to file disruptive lawsuits with the goal of taking over control and operation of Floridas Medicaid and disability programs.

Senate Children, Families and Elder Affairs Committee Chairwoman Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood, said she planned to hold a hearing on the issue.

"It's probably a funding issue," Sobel said. "We'll hear both sides, and the senators will decide what we should do. We're moving ahead with every aspect so these kids in vulnerable situations have every chance to have a life."

CAN COMMON CORE PASS THE TEST?

By the time the state released its annual report card on elementary and middle schools Friday, it felt a bit like the state's education establishment had been cramming for an examination of its own. Controversy continued to swirl around whether the state should continue its involvement with the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC.

The partnership is a consortium aimed at coming up with tests that will measure students' achievements under Common Core -- a nationwide set of standards developed by states that some conservatives consider the precursor to a curriculum backed by the federal government.

After House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, sent a letter the previous week asking for the state to pull out of PARCC, supporters and opponents of Common Core itself clashed.

Five former chairmen of the Republican Party of Florida wrote a letter calling for the state to stand behind the Common Core program, which is also supported by former Gov. Jeb Bush, still an influential voice on education policy.

"Unfortunately, there has been a tremendous amount of misinformation about the movement to raise academic standards, especially among our fellow conservatives," they wrote. " ... We implore our fellow Republicans to judge the Common Core State Standards by what they are: academic standards, not curriculum and not a national mandate."

Those signing the letter were state Sen. John Thrasher, Carole Jean Jordan, Al Cardenas, Tom Slade and Van Poole. It also chided those who might attack the other side of the debate.

But Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, seen as a potential presidential contender in 2016, knocked the idea in an interview with The Shark Tank, a conservative blog.

"And I am very concerned, and quite frankly opposed to any effort to try to create some sort of national curriculum standard and then try to leverage the power of the federal governments funding to force states to adopt a certain curriculum standard," Rubio said, according to the site. "State and local levels are the best places to come up with curriculum reform, and it's something the federal government shouldnt be deeply involved in."

As for the grades under the current system, they showed a decline that educators say is due to a series of changes the state has made as it tries to ratchet up standards -- in part with Common Core in mind.

In all, 107 elementary and middle schools -- slightly more than 4 percent -- received failing grades on the preliminary report cards. (The numbers also include "combination schools" and high schools that don't have graduating classes.) In 2012, 40 schools got "F" grades, amounting to just more than 1.5 percent. The department graded 21 more schools this year.

That marked the highest number of schools to get an "F" at least since the program started including learning gains as part of the report card in 2002. And it came despite the State Board of Education agreeing to extend by a year a rule preventing schools from dropping more than one letter grade on the report cards.

But without the changes, officials said, 261 schools would have received failing grades.

Still, the state's main teachers' union ripped into the new results and the system that produced them.

"The constantly changing measures the Florida DOE uses in grading schools renders them meaningless as a comparison of school progress," Florida Education Association President Andy Ford said. " ... This system is flawed and does not reflect rising student achievement and the dedicated and caring efforts by our public school teachers and other school employees to provide our children with a high-quality education."

STORY OF THE WEEK: Protesters continued their sit-in at the Capitol in an effort to pressure lawmakers to deal with what activists call problems in the state's self-defense laws and policies for disciplining students and juveniles.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "Well I'll tell you, it's hard to sleep when you're fighting for District 8." -- Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, talking to WCTV in Tallahassee about his residency. The station reported that Williams owns a homesteaded property outside his district and is partial owner of a property within the district.

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