- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:


Dec. 24

The Tampa Bay Times on charter schools:

Florida has invested heavily in privately run charter schools for years, and the payoff for taxpayers has been uneven at best. While some successful charter schools fill particular needs in local communities, too many have failed and research shows they have not outperformed traditional public schools in the state. Taxpayers also have lost millions in construction costs and other capital investments when charter schools have closed, and state lawmakers should revisit the oversight and funding for these schools.

The state has lost as much as $70 million in money for construction, rent and other costs when charter schools have closed over the last 15 years, a recent Associated Press analysis found. In Broward County, 19 now-closed charter schools received $16.5 million. In Hillsborough County, 17 now-closed charter schools received more than $5.4 million. In Pasco County, three now-closed charter schools received more than $900,000, and in Pinellas County three received almost $550,000. In Miami-Dade County, the Liberty City Charter that Jeb Bush helped establish before he ran for governor in 1998 received more than $1 million in capital money from the state before it closed with financial problems. Why should taxpayers be shouldering such financial risk and eating these losses for privately run schools?

It would be one thing if traditional public schools were flush with cash with no need for new construction or maintenance. In fact, the state’s 67 school districts received no new construction money for three years before finally dividing a modest $50 million last year (a handful of rural counties got another $59.7 million). Those facilities are used by more than 2.7 million students, yet far fewer charter schools that served about 230,000 students split $75 million. This year traditional schools and charter schools each received $50 million, and Gov. Rick Scott recommends public schools and charter schools each get $75 million for construction and maintenance for 2016-17. But a 50-50 split of the money is hardly fair. Pinellas County schools alone have more than $400 million in construction and capital needs over the next five years, yet the district has received just $8.1 million in construction and maintenance money from the state over the last five years.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, overall have received more than $760 million from taxpayers for capital costs since 2000, the AP reported. In 2012 and 2013, they got virtually all of the state money for construction and maintenance. Charter school advocates argue that the money is critical to their success, and they point out they do not have the authority to levy local property taxes to pay for those capital costs like school districts can for traditional public schools. But charters are not always small operations. They are often managed by large, for-profit companies such as Charter Schools USA, which won approval from the Hillsborough School Board this fall to run four new schools with up to 4,650 students. Passing through tax dollars for per student funding, paying public money for construction and maintenance, and allowing for less regulation for charter schools where private management companies make a profit at little risk is a pretty sweet deal.

Florida taxpayers will never get back the $70 million lost on construction costs for failed charter schools. At the very least, the state should require that the school building or other capital assets be handed to taxpayers when that happens so at least some of the public’s investment can be recovered.




Dec. 24

The Florida Times-Union on a possible Jacksonville aquarium:

Jacksonville officials have been seeking that iconic landmark that will visually identify the city to outsiders, much like the stunning Sydney Opera House marks the Australian city.

There, the sweeping white “sails” of the opera house signify the centuries-long importance of the area to shipping and the maritime economy. The opera’s overlapping, ivory-white domes are a focal point easily seen from much of the city, including the highways that span the harbor.

A similar landmark, which would label Jacksonville as a wonderland that has historically depended upon its watery components for its very livelihood, is nearing the three-year planning point. There are great hopes it will gain even more traction in 2016.

The idea of placing an aquarium on the river downtown is an inspiration whose time has come as people, through the JAX Chamber’s truJax project, are once again discussing how to brand Jacksonville. Having a museum honoring underwater life would underscore the city’s unique status as a place blessed with a wide variety of ocean, river and marsh resources.

All the more appealing is the fact that the aquarium itself and the surroundings, as envisioned by its supporters at AquaJax and the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens, is a bold statement and could stand as a visual touchstone for the city.

From above, the 150,000-square-foot aquarium building - inspired by the shape of a manta ray - would arch into wings to soar over the surrounding area. Scattered beneath the wings would be pools where creatures such as rays could dwell.

Imagine the image that would be beamed to audiences nationally from blimps as they ply the skies over the stadium during games. It would certainly be iconic enough to embed the striking image in viewers’ minds.

But the ground view would be just as stunning.

Supporters would love to see such an aquarium built on an eight-acre city-owned riverfront parcel near Metropolitan Park.

If that came to pass, the aquarium, much like the Sydney opera house, would be a startling edifice of arcing wings as viewed from the river and bridges.

How’s that for a brand, Jacksonville?

However, it’s not just the potential branding that’s attractive about this aquarium proposal.

Dan Maloney, the deputy director of animal care and conservation at the zoo, said those involved in the project have already approached biology programs at both the University of North Florida and Jacksonville University, which expressed interest in establishing research partnerships.

Indeed UNF President John Delaney said his staff would definitely be interested. After all, “it’s like a giant lab,” he says.

And at JU, Quinton White, executive director of the JU Marine Science Research Institute, terms the proposal “really, really exciting.

“In some ways, it’s ridiculous we don’t have something like this already,” he said.

Such collaboration could bring in scientists, students and others who would be attracted to the unique possibility of joining forces with a resource such as a large-scale aquarium in a city surrounded by water.

AquaJax Chairman George Harrell estimates the aquarium could also bring in nearly 1 million visitors the first year alone, some of them Jacksonville residents and some tourists. Over 10 years, it could have a $1.3 billion impact on the city.

The zoo’s board has forwarded a proposal to create a boat tour that would transport visitors between the aquarium and the zoo. Along the way, users would be taught about the watery ecology and history of the area.

Finally, a bustling aquarium complex would inspire new businesses to crop up in the surrounding area. In Charlotte, which is the urban template for what the team at AquaJax is attempting, within the first year seven new hotels and 150 new businesses opened up in the area immediately surrounding the aquarium, Harrell says.

Not only would the aquarium provide nearly 1,000 new jobs itself, each of these new businesses would add to the job creation prompted by the attraction.

The test of whether this extraordinary plan will work will probably come next year when AquaJax begins reaching out to funders to underwrite the $100 million complex.

A “champion” is now being sought among moneyed Jacksonville residents to take the project onto its next stage. Once that person is located, a capital campaign can be initiated.

Let’s hope that the proposal will continue its successful path toward fruition.

There are so many enhancements a major aquarium, if it can find viable funding, could provide to Jacksonville.

Iconic beauty. Tourism. Research. Education. Business. Jobs. A brand.

We live in a water wonderland.

Let’s celebrate that.




Dec. 21

The Palm Beach Post on teaching computer coding as a foreign language:

Foreign languages might have an entirely new definition thanks to proposed legislation in Tallahassee.

State Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, has proposed a bill that will allow high school students to substitute computer coding classes for their foreign language classes. If his bill passes, high school students can take computer coding to satisfy the two required foreign-language instruction credits. Ring, a former Yahoo executive, believes that learning computer coding will give Florida students a leg up.

That may be, but at what cost?

Ring’s proposal (SB 468) has merit in that our public schools should adapt to the needs of a modern society, and computer coding is becoming an important skill to learn. Technology is a growth industry, and schools should be preparing our students for high-paying, fast-changing jobs in that sector.

The proposal - which passed the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee by an 8-2 vote on Dec. 3 - sounds good on its face, but there are some rather obvious concerns.

Teaching computer coding should not come at the expense of foreign languages. Ring claims that it is not, and defends his bill as innovation without harming the current curriculum. “We’re not replacing foreign language,” Ring said to members of the Senate panel. “We’re saying computer language should be in the language initiatives, in the language disciplines.”

But if coding can replace a class in French or Spanish, students following that path may ultimately avoid taking, and learning, another language. As others have noted, the school day is not getting longer. If something is added to the curriculum, something is going to be replaced. If a student can escape language classes by taking computer coding classes, then we suspect that many will likely avoid learning a language.

As important as learning coding skills are, and will be, foreign language skills are a vital part of an increasingly globalized society. Florida is an international destination, and has trading partners across the globe. The ability to speak and write in foreign languages is a fundamental part of a competitive economic and business environment.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, who voted against the bill, is correct when he focuses on the broader role of an education.

“It goes back to why we provide an education in the first place,” the Lake Worth Democrat told the committee. “It isn’t so kids can get a job; it’s so they can become a well-rounded member of society. . If we’re focusing on getting our kids a certain type of job, it’s a disservice.”

Studying coding - the process of writing instructions for computer behavior - is not the same as learning the inter-personal communication and cultural lessons taught in language study. Truth be told, all public school students should be taking a foreign language, whether they are learning coding or not.

Further, the measure does not add funding to the school budget to buy computers, hire teachers and create a coding curriculum. Qualified teachers in technology and coding are not inexpensive, or easily found. In other words, it looks, smells and sounds like yet another unfunded mandate to be borne by school districts already strapped for digital resources. The bill would require districts to develop plans for computer-coding curriculums and submit them to the state by Jan. 1, 2017. If the state believes that this training is important, it needs to fund it and not just push it off on school districts.

Ring is right that Florida high schools should be offering this opportunity to students. But it should not be substituted for a foreign language, or mandated without the support and funding that school districts will need to build a strong program. The last time they went this route, Palm Beach County Schools were stuck with a $9 million-plus annual bill to teach an extra hour of reading.

Well-intentioned or not, Ring needs to fix his bill so that it doesn’t encourage one vital skill at the expense of another, and find the money to pay for it.



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