- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Sept. 28

The Miami Herald on state’s testing and grading system:

The long-festering dispute between local school districts and an unreasonable Florida Department of Education turned into open revolt last week as superintendents across the state finally declared that they’ve lost confidence in the state’s testing and grading system.

The well-justified howl from the districts follows years of mounting frustration with a flawed system that unfairly affects schools and students, and the refusal of state education leaders to acknowledge the damage.

Essentially, the superintendents declared that they’ve had it with a so-called “accountability system” that shortchanges the teachers, students and parents across Florida, regardless of what Education Commissioner Pam Stewart and her allies in Tallahassee may think.

“We have witnessed the erosion of public support for an accountability system that was once a model for the nation,” the statement said. The superintendents called for basic changes in school testing and grading before the system inflicts greater harm on public schools.

The numerous failings of the state’s accountability system include the problematic rollout of the Florida Standards Assessment test seven months ago, the use of these scores as the sole determinant in school grading decisions and scores released many months after the tests were given and far too late to be of practical use for teachers.

In an appearance before the state education board last week, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho called the state’s unwillingness to acknowledge its errors “unconscionable.”

For the superintendents, the heart of the matter is the deeply flawed FSA administered last spring. A follow-up validity study issued this month concluded that “the FSA did not meet the normal rigor and standardization expected with a high-stakes assessment program.”

The school districts pleaded with Commissioner Stewart to suspend application of the results given that the test itself got a failing grade, but - even though the scores are plainly suspect and the testing process was unfair to students - she said the state would proceed as planned to use this year’s numbers.

That’s a mistake. The state lacks data to calculate year-to-year learning gains by students - another major flaw in the system - but the decision to move ahead anyway conforms to the state’s stubborn pattern of refusing to acknowledge the plain facts. That’s how this unprecedented dispute between the state and local school districts developed in the first place.

The school superintendents, to be clear, are not opposed to an accountability system. Public education needs one, but it has to be fair and accurate. Their statement merely echoes the complaints they’ve been hearing from parents and teachers across the state. They’re the ones demanding change.

We urge the Department of Education to heed the call from the local districts. Suspend application of results from last spring’s test, which the superintendents accurately described as “a rushed and flawed administration of new, untried assessments.” If necessary, give the schools an “Incomplete” while changes are made. Most important, heed the call for an extensive review of the accountability system.

It’s up to Commissioner Stewart and her supporters and allies in Tallahassee - Gov. Scott, are you even aware of what’s going on? - to take this seriously. They must not shrug it off with “we know what we’re doing” rhetoric.

Their assessment system has lost all credibility with the public and cannot succeed unless its glaring flaws are corrected. Without changes, it’s only going to get worse.

Online:

https://www.miamiherald.com

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Sept. 24

South Florida Sun Sentinel on decision of destination casinos in state:

The decision has been made for us. Because Tallahassee refuses to budge, we, the citizens of Broward County, will not get to decide for ourselves whether we want a destination casino - a high-end, high-class convention-and-casino resort - in our midst.

After six years of trying, Las Vegas Sands, which had publicly expressed interest in building an iconic luxury resort somewhere in downtown Fort Lauderdale, last weekend called it quits. The company owned by billionaire Sheldon Adelson has kissed its lobbyists goodbye. It plans to talk to Georgia, instead.

“No matter who wanted it, they weren’t going to get destination gaming in Florida; it doesn’t matter who you are,” Sands vice president Andy Abboud told FloridaPolitics.com, which broke the news.

The other big casino company most often mentioned in these parts, the Genting Group, which had hoped to build a flashy casino complex at the site of the old Miami Herald building, threw up its hands two years ago when it leased its Omni Center property - a key parcel in the mega-proposal - for 10 years. “There are no plans for the next 10 years for any gaming in the Omni complex,” chamber President Barry Johnson told the South Florida Business Journal at the time.

Maybe the people of South Florida don’t want glitzy new convention-and-casino complexes in Broward and Miami-Dade, the two counties targeted for one each under recent legislative proposals.

But shouldn’t we have had the chance to decide for ourselves?

After all, gambling has been big business here since the 1930s. Our two counties boast four horse tracks, two dog tracks and two jai alai frontons, each with mini-casinos attached. Plus, we’ve got three Seminole casinos, a Miccosukee bingo and poker hall, and gambling cruises, in addition to the big daddy of them all, the Florida Lottery.

Three things stood in the way of letting local voters decide.

The first was the lack of leadership from Gov. Rick Scott, who went missing in action during this year’s gambling debate; and Senate President Andy Gardiner, who hates anything to do with gambling.

The second was Central Florida business interests that don’t want better convention options in South Florida, especially if they feature casino gambling.

The third was lawmakers from other parts of the state who oppose any expansion of gambling, no matter that today’s regulatory environment just gave rise to a new style of horse racing, first called barrel-racing, now called flag-drop. And if a much-anticipated court ruling goes a certain way, parimutuels outside South Florida soon could get slot-machine casinos, too.

Doing nothing is not helping Florida create a clear vision for - and address longstanding problems in - a gambling industry that is here to stay.

Had Sands won a bid to build a destination casino in Broward, legislation proposed by House leaders this year would have required it to spend $2 billion - that’s $2 billion with a “b” - on a complex that would have featured high-end retail, restaurants, hotel rooms and entertainment.

And to counter the issue of “gambling creep,” the legislation would have required Sands, or Genting, or Trump or whichever company won the license, to first buy out one or two parimutuel facilities, thereby shrinking the footprint of gambling.

Can you imagine the jobs, the buzz and the economic impact that an iconic destination resort might have created? Sands expected a Fort Lauderdale complex would draw new, high-end tourists from South and Central America.

Maybe we, the people, didn’t want to upgrade to a big new casino in our midst, though a Sands lobbyist said polling showed strong public support. Local leaders were interested in having the conversation, too.

But we, the people, deserved to have the debate and to decide this question for ourselves.

Instead, once again, our fortunes have been decided by the game of chance in Tallahassee.

Online:

https://www.sun-sentinel.com

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Sept. 29

Herald-Tribune of Sarasota, Florida, on increased transparency on hospital costs in state:

There’s nothing wrong with Gov. Rick Scott’s call for more transparency on hospital costs. It’s the way he called for it - and his record on health care - that makes his motives suspect.

Scott said Monday he would seek legislation requiring Florida’s hospitals to post their prices and average procedure costs on their websites. He also wants nonprofit hospitals to post their annual reports to the IRS online.

“We must address the high costs hospitals pass on to patients if we are going to make health care more affordable and accessible in Florida,” Scott said in a news release. “That means we must empower patients through more public information and transparency about hospital spending and pricing.”

No argument there. The need for transparency is well established.

As Scott pointed out, a recent national study found that 20 of the 50 U.S. hospitals that charge the most for their services are in Florida. The study’s authors urged state and federal lawmakers to require hospitals to publish cost data to help curb rising health care spending.

Three years ago, the Obama administration began publishing such data, including hospital expenses and the costs of popular procedures, to encourage consumers to compare prices.

The Florida Hospital Association says it’s already working on proposed legislation that would improve transparency in the health care industry.

But Scott didn’t stop at making a reasonable and justifiable call for more transparency. In his release, the governor also threw in some pejorative terms, unwarranted threats and unfounded accusations - with the apparent intent to intimidate rather than seek common ground.

The release said Scott is “proposing to create additional protections for Florida patients by allowing the referral of any suspected hospital price gouging to the appropriate law enforcement agency or regulatory authority.”

“Price gouging,” a term normally reserved for miscreants who jack up the price of supplies for disaster victims, is used multiple times in Scott’s release. Which law enforcement agencies will be capable of investigating a patient’s complaint about hospital overcharges for aspirin or an arm brace?

The proposed requirement for posting financial disclosures by publicly funded and nonprofit hospitals, Scott said, would enable the public to know if taxpayer dollars are “being used to provide patients hospital services or fund record-high hospital profits and CEO bonuses.”

Of the 20 Florida hospitals cited for overcharging in the recent study, 19 were private institutions.

Yet Scott wants to heap more reporting requirements on tax-exempt hospitals, including those owned by the public; his animosity toward public hospitals and publicly funded health care is nothing new.

This latest crusade against hospitals is apparently the result of Scott’s largely failed effort to cut Medicaid costs through privatization. Full implementation of Florida’s Medicaid managed-care program - through which state and federal funds are paid to private insurers to oversee medical care for the poor and disabled - is one of his signature achievements.

But the insurers lost $514 million administering the plan in 2014, and recently were awarded $400 million by the Legislature plus a 7.7 percent rate increase by state regulators.

Scott accused the insurers of negotiating hospital contracts that were too high, and blamed hospitals for overcharging.

But the state’s chief economist told legislators this month that Medicaid costs are up because of an increase in enrollment, higher drug costs, and the cost of Scott’s privatization plan.

Scott, who previously opposed Medicaid expansion under Obamacare, then supported it during his re-election, and now opposes it again - and who has sought to shift funding for the uninsured from public to private hospitals - doesn’t let facts get in the way of his ideology.

Online:

https://www.heraldtribune.com


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