Weekly Roundup: A Tale of Two Summits
Around the State
There were two summits that Gov. Rick Scott was involved in this week: the one he called and the one he attended.
The one he called -- to consider the state's efforts to hold schools accountable and to make sure students are learning -- didn't feature any policy announcements or dramatic plans. Instead, it was more of a gathering to try to get business leaders, educators and state officials on the same page.
Meanwhile, researchers with the University of South Florida prepared to excavate the site of the former Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, with the potential for uncovering secrets that the local community would just as soon keep buried. Absence, in that case, is just fine with the local residents.
Scott's speech Friday to the "Defending the American Dream Summit," held in Orlando by the tea party-aligned Americans for Prosperity, seemed to be his clearest step yet toward shoring up the conservative base he will need heading into a tough re-election campaign in 2014. His remarks included a pledge to slice $500 million in taxes and fees.
"This year, we are committed to returning even more money to the hard-working Florida families who earn it," Scott said in his prepared remarks. "I look forward to working with our friends in the Florida Legislature to make these tax cuts a reality."
Even without any specific details on what the tax cuts would be, Scott seemed to already be well on the way to winning support from "our friends." House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, quickly rallied around at least the idea of reducing taxes and fees -- never a particularly hard sell in an election year.
"When you announce a tax cut, you can count on a hearty cheer from the Florida House of Representatives. ... Although we do not have the concrete numbers that the Legislature will use to write our budget next year, we are committed to funding our state priorities, which will include a significant tax cut for Floridians," Weatherford said.
Gaetz even had an idea to offer: a $200 million-plus plan to cut motor-vehicle registration fees, an idea the Senate offered in 2013 in exchange for repealing a tax break for insurance companies. The idea didn't gain much traction in the House during the 2013 session, and Gaetz's statement Friday omitted any talk of an offset.
"The Senate will be happy to partner with Governor Scott and the Florida House on a tax relief proposal that will keep more money in the pockets of the hard-working Floridians who earn it," Gaetz said.
As one might expect, some Democrats were less impressed, and pointed out that Scott had delivered the speech in Orlando despite playing hooky at his own education summit earlier in the week.
"Instead of offering new ideas for educating our children, expanding access to health care, advancing women's rights, and protecting the right to vote, he doubled down on the same failed message of big giveaways to businesses at the expense of the middle class," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Joshua Karp.
As for the education summit, the focus was less on deciding policies for Florida's public schools and more on gathering input as state officials consider a range of issues related to the state's accountability system. Among the topics covered were teacher evaluations, school report cards and how far the state should go with the nationwide Common Core standards and an associated group of tests.
Already, there were signs of progress on school grades at least. Interim Education Commissioner Pam Stewart told reporters at the summit Tuesday that the state Board of Education will debate in October whether to extend for another year a plan to keep public schools from dropping by more than a letter grade on state-issued report cards.
The state board has approved the "safety net" on the report cards for two years now, most recently in July, as public schools implement Common Core, but in both cases the board was asked late in the process of calculating grades to approve the policy.
"I think when the board voted in the summer, I think it was always the intention that they take it up again when it wasn't such a quick turnaround, but they had time to be thoughtful about it and think about it and do it early. ... I think it's important that our schools and school districts know what the rules are that they're playing with as early as possible in the year," Stewart said.
The board voted for the policy by a narrow, 4-to-3 margin this summer, with some members criticizing it as a move to water down the state system.
Meanwhile, in the latest sign of legislative opposition to Common Core, Rep. Debbie Mayfield filed a bill late Wednesday aimed at shutting down the standards in Florida and pulling the state out of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC. That group is developing tests lined up with Common Core.
"We need to stop Common Core going through," said Mayfield, R-Vero Beach. "We don't need to be giving up state's rights."
So far, legislative leaders have called only for the state to pull out of PARCC and create its own test lined up with the standards.
DIGGING UP SECRETS:
Researchers with the University of South Florida prepared for Saturday, when they are set to begin excavating long-buried human remains from unmarked graves at the shuttered Arthur G. Dozier School in Marianna. The weekend work outside the Boot Hill section of the closed state-run reform school is expected to be the first in a number of digs over the next year, according to University of South Florida spokeswoman Lara Wade-Martinez.
"USF has one year to complete the work at Dozier, which includes finding the location of any additional burials, the excavation of all human remains, DNA testing and analysis, and the re-internment of remains," Wade-Martinez wrote in an email.
Scott and the Cabinet approved the work earlier this month. Questions have arisen about whether boys who reportedly died of pneumonia and other natural causes were killed at the school, and some longtime Jackson County residents have expressed concerns about what effect exhuming bodies will have on the local economy and image of the community.
"I don't know of anybody who approves of it around here," said Marianna resident Ken Stoutamire, whose family has been farming in the Panhandle since before Florida achieved statehood. "It doesn't reflect good on Marianna. There is just Marianna and the boy's school. The association is hurting us. And we need them to get out of here."
But Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, said that for the families of those who died at Dozier the state must admit what happened, "no matter how dark and how grim it may be."
"In order to move forward you have to correct some of the past misgiving and missteps that the state has done under previous administrations," Williams said.
For now, though, the project will remain out of the public eye.
The Legislature set aside $190,000 for the project, and USF researchers also received a $423,528 federal grant to help with the effort to search for reportedly unaccounted-for bodies of boys who died between 1900 and 1952.
"In an effort to be respectful to the families, to maintain safety, and to allow the excavation work to be conducted unhindered, this will be a closed research site," Wade-Martinez said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: A summit called by Gov. Rick Scott discusses the state of Florida's school accountability system, as state officials move toward a decision on whether to drop out of a consortium developing tests related to the nationwide Common Core standards.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "My predecessor had made a name for himself by hugging president Obama's nonstop spending -- and even hugging the president." -- Gov. Rick Scott, taking a verbal shot at former GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, who is expected to run against Scott as a Democrat in 2014.