- Associated Press - Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:

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Oct. 27

The Ledger of Lakeland on alligators in the state:

Earlier this year The Weather Channel offered a brief report on a group of Lazarus taxa. If you’re not up to speed on your Latin - don’t worry, neither were we - scientists use the term to refer to species thought to be extinct but were suddenly discovered.

The Weather Channel, noting that according to the United Nations some 150 to 200 animals are considered extinct each day, identified 10 such creatures in its feature. Most were found overseas, but wherever they were discovered, scientists credited one factor to their resurrection, which Charles Darwin could appreciate: “Occasionally,” the network noted, “animals feared extinct will become surprisingly adaptable to changing environments.”

Within North America, few animals have had to deal with a habitat that has evolved as much as the home of Florida’s official reptile: the American alligator.

Alligators have lived in the swamps of North America for at least the last 14,000 years. But in the 1950s and ‘60s, the combination of habitat loss - Florida’s human population more than doubled between 1950 and 1965 - and hunters seeking the armor-like hide for eventual conversion to shoes, purses, belts and other items greatly reduced the population.

Concerned alligator proponents sought greater protection for the reptiles. In 1967 gators were added to the roster of protected animals under the federal Endangered Species Protection Act, the forerunner to the better known Endangered Species Act.

Conservationists, environmentalists and scientists credit the Endangered Species Act with literally saving the gators’ hides. Alligators had rebounded so much that they were removed from the protected list just 20 years later. Edward O. Wilson, a renowned biology professor at Harvard, called the recovery of the alligator population and the subsequent de-listing the “most dramatic” success of the Endangered Species Act.

Brian Seasholes, a scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, takes a contrarian view. In a 2013 article, he argued that alligators were not as threatened as some claimed. Moreover, he said the credit for the alligators’ resurgence belongs more to a 1969 amendment to the federal Lacey Act that outlawed the interstate trade reduced the incentive for hunting. Seasholes maintained that amendment only reinforced state sanctions - Florida banned hunting and trade of gators as early as 1962 - that had created the momentum to preserve the species.

However it came about, the effort to preserve alligators has worked so well that we are awash in them today. In fact, the population had surged so much that Florida reintroduced hunting on a limited basis in 1988. The Sunshine State is now home to an estimated 1.3 million alligators - roughly a quarter of the whole U.S. population.

We comment on this because this year’s alligator hunting season ends on Tuesday. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued more than 6,000 permits to gator hunters this year, according to a recent article by the Naples Daily News. While the numbers are not final yet, hunters last year bagged more than 6,700 alligators, and the fees for licenses generated $1.5 million for the FWC, which uses the proceeds to fund research, conservation and law enforcement, the Daily News reported. The increase in its numbers has also allowed a cottage industry for alligator products, including meat, to flourish.

Based on the figure Seasholes cited, the alligator population in Florida has roughly doubled over the past 45 years or so. Meanwhile, the human population has quadrupled. That has made human-gator contact more frequent, and sometimes with tragic results. The tension will likely increase as Florida welcomes more new residents and encroaches on more gator habitat in seeking the space to house them. But while we need to tread lightly around our lakes, rivers and marshes, Floridians can take pride that their state icon is in no danger of becoming part of the Lazarus taxa crowd.

Online: https://www.theledger.com/

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Oct. 31 the Ocala Star-Banner on the Family First Prevention Services Act:

The Family First Prevention Services Act, which has passed the House and has a good chance of making it through the Senate, would address the harsh reality that tears too many children from their families and puts them in foster care rather than funding services that would keep them safer and happier with their own parents.

Using the carrot of increased federal funding, the legislation would push states toward the best outcomes for many of the children at risk of abuse or neglect. But many fear the legislation would leave behind a small, but often deeply traumatized, cadre of children. That’s not a trade-off Congress should ask states to make.

Many states are already on the right path. In its current budget, Florida allocated $2.7 million for programs that target the problems that can destabilize a family and open the door to abuse and neglect. Across the nation, these programs are posting impressive results.

In the long run, the best way to protect children is to heal families. Shifting policy to emphasize that goal makes compassionate and fiscal sense.

Unfortunately, there always will be some children whose homes are too perilous. There are an unsettling number of children across the state, and here in Marion County, in out-of-home care. The next best option is sheltering the child with a relative; after that, child-protection agencies look to a network of foster parents.

But the right kind of placement isn’t always available, especially in communities (like here) that have a shortage of foster homes. Many children come into the protective care system already fighting the same demons that beset their parents: Addiction, delinquency, truancy and other blaring signs of trouble. Some bounce from foster home to foster home, with each “failure” inflicting more trauma on an already shattered child.

There’s another option for these children: group homes staffed by professional caregivers, some of which offer specialized treatment for clients struggling with the aftermath of sexual or physical abuse, repeated abandonment and other serious challenges. Most are small, with six or fewer beds, but there are some well-regarded larger facilities.

Unfortunately, group care is expensive - upward of $300 a day in some intensive treatment facilities. And it still carries the stigma of the old-school “warehouse” type of care. That could explain why the Family First Prevention Services Act pulls federal funding for any child left “inappropriately” in a group setting for more than a few weeks. That’s the wrong approach - one that would leave a small but very traumatized group of children without the kind of help they need to recover.

A better approach: Strengthen oversight, ensuring that child welfare officials are using group-home placements sparingly and appropriately. That wouldn’t produce the immediate cost savings the legislation’s backers are relying on, but it would ensure that states have the right tools to protect all the children who need help - and that should be the prevailing priority.

Online: https://www.ocala.com/

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Nov. 1

The Sun Sentinel on Bright Futures scholarships:

University of South Florida researchers saw it coming three years ago. They predicted stricter standards imposed by state lawmakers on Bright Futures scholarships would reduce awards to black and Hispanic students.

Give those researchers a degree in clairvoyance.

As the Sun Sentinel recently reported, the number of black students receiving the lottery-funded scholarships plunged 74 percent from the 2012 to the 2016 school years at about 100 high schools in three counties: Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade. The number of Hispanic students receiving the merit-based awards plummeted 64 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of white students at the schools receiving Bright Futures awards also fell, though not quite as precipitously, by about 50 percent. It’s reasonable to assume the impact on these three groups was similar across Florida.

Rep. George Moraitis, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, told our reporter that before lawmakers toughened the requirements for Bright Futures, the scholarships had become too easy to obtain and the program had grown too large. So he and a majority of his legislative colleagues voted in 2011 to require students to score higher on ACT and SAT tests to qualify.

But studies have found black and Hispanic students tend to score lower than white students on standardized tests, in part due to higher poverty rates. More minority students grow up in homes with fewer books and other sources of educational enrichment. They are underrepresented in gifted and talented classes, according to the U.S. Department of Education. They can’t easily afford to take preparatory courses or buy books to boost their test scores, or take the tests more than once.

Any policy that makes higher education less accessible isn’t just tough on the affected groups. It’s tough on the state’s economy, which needs more college-educated workers to attract more high-wage jobs and boost Florida’s tax base.

Lawmakers created the Bright Futures program in 1997 to encourage the state’s top students to stay in Florida. Its “A” award originally covered full tuition and fees at public universities, but now pays for about half. It’s “B” award once covered 75 percent of tuition and fees, but now covers about a third.

Students who can’t afford full tuition but can’t qualify for a Bright Futures scholarship must use other strategies to fill the money gap. Those might include jobs that take time from studying and keep them in school longer to earn their degrees, and loans. Graduates who enter the working world weighed down by debt face a greater challenge finding jobs where they can earn enough to keep up with their loan payments and establish independent lives. The limits imposed by debt on their spending power also can be a drag on the state’s economy.

To their credit, lawmakers have taken some positive steps to make higher education more affordable in recent years. At the urging of Gov. Rick Scott, they’ve kept a lid on tuition. Their restraint has slashed the cost of the Florida Prepaid College Plan.

Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican in line to become state Senate president for the next couple of years, has proposed investing an additional $1 billion into higher education during his term. Negron told the Sun Sentinel he doesn’t plan to lower the Bright Futures standards, but he does want the state to spend more money on need-based aid and free test prep classes.

Given the negative impact on minorities - and Florida’s economy - of the scholarship changes, that sounds like the least lawmakers can do.

Online: https://www.sun-sentinel.com/

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