Erin Clark, Author at Florida Politics

Erin Clark

Erin Clark is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. A graduate of the University of Richmond, Clark competed on the professional tennis circuit for several years before returning to writing. Her work has been republished on Townhall and other news sources. She can be reached at eclark@watchdog.org.

Florida cities closer to banning the bag

With last year’s styrofoam ban upheld by a Miami-Dade judge, the city of Coral Gables, south Florida’s “City Beautiful,” is stepping into the eco-regulation fray with another initiative. This time, to “ban the bag.”

At a March 14 meeting, the Coral Gables City Council gave initial approval to an ordinance prohibiting plastic bags being used by retailers or at special events – with a few exceptions.  A final vote, which would make the ban official, is expected on May 8.

Coral Gables would be the first city in Florida with a plastic bag ban.

“Coral Gables has strict zoning laws of which you wouldn’t believe the minutiae and nitpicking,” according to WLRN. “If something is ‘decayed’ in Coral Gables, even lushly, you risk getting beaten to death with a perfectly manicured palmetto branch that can only be removed Thursdays at 4:00 a.m. by the mayor’s cousin.”

And if the city does enact the bag ban, it would also be operating in defiance of existing state regulations –  but perhaps not for long.

Two bills in the state legislature are poised to allow cities across Florida to legally join Coral Gables in this popular regulation.

Ban on the ban

In 2008, Florida lawmakers passed legislation that prohibited cities and municipalities from instituting retail bag bans until such time as the Department of Environmental Protection could make recommendations on the practice. The DEP’s Retail Bags Report came out in 2010.

State Rep. David Richardson, D-Miami Beach, has been introducing bills for several years to allow bag ban programs in the state.

The third consecutive iteration, this year’s HB 93, would allow coastal or otherwise water-adjacent municipalities of less than 100,000 residents to initiate a pilot program banning plastic bags. The accompanying Senate bill, SB 162, has made it through its first committee stop.

If enacted, the man-made island of Miami Beach, population 92,312 according to the latest available Census estimates, would be allowed to begin a bag ban trial program. On the other side of Biscayne Bay, the city of Miami, with its 2,712,945 residents, would not.

Richardson was not available for comment. But his legislative assistant, Luis Callejas, told Watchdog that this was the result of legislative negotiations to advance the bill.

“Initially, it was for any city in the state,” said Callejas. “[Our goal is] just to make sure that interest groups know that this is a big concern for Miami Beach and coastal communities in general.”

Callejas said that the larger goal of this legislation was simply to get these environmental issues more attention in the legislature, but that the Florida Retail Federation had successfully blocked previous bag ban bills from advancing in the House.

The Florida Retail Federation had not responded to Watchdog’s requests for comment at the time of publication, but FRF spokesman James Miller told the TC Palm that the ban hurts the “ability of each retailer to respond to the demands of its customers,” particularly when navigating different regulations in different municipalities.

“Plastic bags are 100 percent recyclable, and retailers have embraced their role in recycling these materials,” he said, adding that there is no perfect environmental solution.

A little less conversation

At the state legislature, the bag ban talk might be more for show.

But for Coral Gables, the activity on the ban is real.

If Coral Gables does pass the ban in defiance of existing state law, it can expect to be sued by the state.

Marilu Flores, vice chair of the Surfrider Foundation’s Miami chapter, told Watchdog that they have offered the city legal assistance in the event of a suit.

“What’s happening in Coral Gables is very interesting because it’s putting pressure in Tallahassee that this is what people want,” she said, adding that Surfrider has drummed up 40 letters of support from different Florida communities interested in their own bag bans.

Callejas also said the Surfrider Foundation has been instrumental in crafting the language of the bill and pushing the legislative agenda.

Surfrider’s involvement in the Florida issue is longstanding. It has been active in pushing legislation in the past few years and tried to thwart the initial legislative bag ban pre-emption.

Flores said she was hopeful. “This year, we’ve seen some movement that haven’t seen in years past.”

She added that Florida was uniquely situated to benefit from a ban, and that aside from all of the obvious wildlife and ecological pollution problems, plastic bag pollution is a “huge financial disruptor as well.”

Miami Beach found that loose plastic bags interfered with the city’s floodgate mechanisms and worsened flooding problems, she said.

Surfrider is one of the most visible advocates behind a nationwide epidemic of bag bans.

Florida alone has eleven Surfrider chapters, with many more across the country, all of which coordinate with the organization’s Malibu headquarters.

Surfrider bills itself as a community of everyday people who are the “champions of surf and sand.”

However, investigations into the national organization suggest that Surfrider sometimes skirts the laws that govern not-for-profit entities.

Solving the wrong problem

In addition to questions about the organizational integrity of the bag ban’s loudest advocate, the movement’s claim to scientific integrity and environmental dedication is undermined in another way: the empirical results of places that have already tried the ban.

“Plastic bag bans haven’t been transformative anywhere else. This is a solution in search of a problem,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at the free-market Reason Foundation.

Moore added that the heavy duty reusable bags that people turn to when grocery plastic bags are banned are not necessarily better for the environment, given the greater resource and processing demands of making them.He told Watchdog that plastic bag bans do not have a significant impact on litter reduction. Reusable plastic bags make up only 1 percent of litter found in a typical city, and even less than that of the solid waste in landfills.

He called bag bans a kind of “cop-out,” allowing cities to avoid asking the real questions about why we have problems with litter (including plastic bags) getting into the environment, be it lack of garbage cans, insufficient public education, or not cleaning up after events, for starters.

Moreover, Moore said that a lot of these cities that pass bag bans are those with environmentally conscious, better-off residents. In other words, places where people are already likely to be mindful of reusing bags and stewarding the environment – and where the impact of bag bans is particularly negligible.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 23 states proposed legislation regulating the retail use of plastic bags in 2015 and 2016. The only laws that passed were in Arizona, Idaho and Missouri, all of which pre-empted city bans.

California has the oldest statewide ban, passed in 2014. Hawaii effectively has one as well, given that all of its largest cities have passed bag ban ordinances.

At the city level, there has been even more activity, with cities like Austin, Chicago and Seattle passing legislation regarding the use of plastic bags. Others, such as Boulder, Colorado; Brownsville, Texas; and Washington, D.C., have instituted bag fees.

The results are underwhelming.  In Washington, the evidence of definitive success isn’t there. The bag tax money has been used for purposes like school field trips and personnel costs, as opposed to the environment initiatives that it was earmarked for.

In Brownsville, the legality of local bag fees has come under question.

But maybe Florida would be different?

“No,” said Moore.  “There’s nothing unique about Florida.”

“If you have a litter problem, you have a litter problem, not a plastic bag problem.”

___

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog.

Florida child welfare providers do more with less, but how much less?

For the community-based care providers that perform the lion’s share of child welfare services in Florida, the proposed 2017 budget is a disappointment.

A press release that accompanied the Jan. 31 release of Republican Gov. Rick Scott’s “Fighting for Florida’s future” budget proposal touts “a  record $632 million to provide core services to children who depend on Florida’s child welfare system.”

“Governor Scott and the Legislature have been exceptionally supportive of the child welfare system and [the Department of Children and Families] is committed to ensuring that all of our resources are directed to be as efficient and effective as possible in serving vulnerable families,” David Frady, press secretary for the Florida DCF, told Watchdog in an email.

But number-crunching done by Florida TaxWatch, a non-partisan taxpayer research group, shows that this statement fails to tell the whole story.

According to TaxWatch’s November 2015 report, real spending on child welfare services has declined since 2008, when inflation-adjusted funding for child welfare providers hit $674.1 million (in 2015 dollars).

At the same time as the effective operating budget of the DCF has been declining, the number of children entering the welfare system has been increasing.

Kurt Kelly, CEO of the Florida Coalition for Children and former state legislator, told Watchdog that there are several factors behind the increased demand for child welfare services.

Part of the growth of children in the system is an outcome of policy changes at the DCF that result in children being removed from unsuitable homes quicker — a good thing, Kelly says.

He added that high turnover rates of child protection investigators affect this process. CPIs investigate claims of abuse and determine if a child needs to be placed into foster care, but the turnover rate means many investigators are new on the job. “Eighty percent of folks making decisions have less than two years experience,” Kelly said. With DCF policies that favor caution and quick action above all else, this might lead to inflated child removal numbers.

The newest threat, Kelly says, is the opioid issue, which is affecting families across the state.  In addition to increased deaths from opioid misuse, CPIs are inclined to remove kids from homes if they see any signs of opioid abuse.

“We saw it in the Sarasota area, which may be the epicenter of the United States in this issue,” Kelly said. “In that area, our removal rate [of children from the family home] in the Sarasota/Manatee area is up 200 percent, which is … unsustainable.”

As of Feb. 28, Florida child welfare services were being provided to 41,707 children.

Underfunded and over-performing

Florida’s child welfare system relies on a community-based care model.

This means that once the DCF investigators have determined that a child needs to be pulled from home, they hand responsibility to regional care organizations. The not-for-profit private organizations administer services to children that enter the foster care system, as well as preventive care services for children that can remain at home, albeit in difficult circumstances.

Seventeen CBC lead agencies operate around the state. These lead agencies, which are spread out around 20 different regions, include Community Based Care of Central Florida and Our Kids of Miami-Dade. They are accountable to the DCF, but operate independently, and subcontract care out to smaller community organizations.

The transition from a more centralized, Tallahassee-administered services model began at the turn of the century. By 2006, the CBC model was operational statewide.

Kelly told Watchdog that Florida’s welfare system now serves as a model for other states. But funding remains a problem.

He estimates that Florida’s child welfare system needs a $49 million budget increase for 2017-18.  DCF requested a $16 million increase for the community care centers.

The current proposal from Scott would allocate a $14.2 million funding increase for Florida’s community-based care providers.

Florida TaxWatch says the system needs another $100 million. The group’s analysis shows that the community-based care providers in particular have been underfunded, while overperforming, for years.

Kelly told Watchdog that the community care providers were allowed access to backup funds several years ago, but quickly went through it. “When I tell you that we’re 20 million in the hole, that’s money that’s being spent right now.”

Decentralization is key

The 2012 Right for Kids Ranking, a report on child welfare systems across the nation, found that Florida has one of the best-performing systems.

Florida ranked fourth in the nation based on measureable outcomes such as adoption rates, family reunification and monthly caseworker visits.

The report found that if all states had welfare programs as effective as Florida’s, the U.S. would have 72,000 fewer kids in foster care per year and find adoptive families for 19,000 more.

Advocates like Florida’s Coalition for Children trace the effectiveness of the Florida system to its decentralization in 1998. Legislation mandated that the DCF contract direct care to private organizations operating at the local level.

Florida isn’t alone in experimenting with decentralizing state child welfare systems.  Kansas initiated similar privatization initiatives in 1995. Although the transition was rockier, a 2010 study by the Casey Family Programs found that “the general public, local communities and stakeholders are more invested in what is happening in Kansas child welfare than ever before,” and that more children were exiting the system into permanent homes.

A 2015 study by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Naples-based free market think-tank, examined Safe Families, a community-based private child welfare program in Chicago. The FGA report advocated shifting more child welfare power to community organizations.

Increasing the risk

Although the numbers show that the community-based care model has been a success in Florida and elsewhere, no system is free from problems.

Foster Shock, a 2016 documentary that tells the story of children who the Florida system has failed, and suggests that the decentralized, privatized system diverts money away from child services and into organization salaries.

Other dissenters focus less on the whole picture, and more on the individuals that child services has let down. Groups such as Florida’s Children First and firms like Talenfield Law advocate on behalf of the legal rights of children in the system — often, that means lawsuits in the face of the inevitable tragic failures.

“Even when we’re totally doing everything right there’s going to be slips and mistakes made and cracks in the system,” Dominic Calabro, CEO of Florida TaxWatch, told Watchdog. “But when you don’t have the full focus or the full reasonable resources, you just increase the risk. And you have high turnover [of caseworkers]. You just increase the likelihood that something bad will happen.”

Elle Piloseno, Florida TaxWatch researcher and author of the 2015 report, told Watchdog that insufficiently funding the system on the front end has social and fiscal implications for the future.

One of the biggest problems the foster care system faces is retaining caseworkers. High turnover rates mean that children deal with an increasing number of case managers — and that adds to their time in the system.

“Every time that this kid needs to be handed over to a new case manager, that case manager has to be trained, they have to be familiarized with the children that they’re serving, they have to be familiarized with the families and the individual characteristics of that situation,” Piloseno said. “All that time adds up when you’re trading hands a bunch of times, which is why turnover is such a huge issue.”

And as a general rule, the longer a child spends in the foster care system, the worse off they are. When kids age out of the system at 18 before finding a permanent home, pregnancy rates go up. High school diploma rates go down. “A quarter of the youth that are aging out of the child welfare system end up being incarcerated within two years,” Piloseno said.

The TaxWatch study found that in addition to creating poor outcomes for children, workforce turnover adds to the taxpayer burden.

“Florida employs almost 3,800 case managers, of which an estimated 37 percent (approximately 1,400) resign and are replaced within one year.” The study found this costs the state approximately $14 million annually.

Prolonging an individual child’s stay in the welfare system has a significant cost. “Taxpayers could pay up to $70,000 per year to care for one child in out-of-home care,” TaxWatch reports.

“People need to understand there’s a real connection and real consequence when you don’t fund [the system],” said Calabro. “Pay me now, or pay me later.”

If it ain’t broke …

But if the system is performing as well as advocates say it is relative to the national standard with its current funding levels, does it really need more money?

“You didn’t just play the devil’s advocate, you played the legislative advocate,” said Kelly. “That’s exactly one of our problems.”

“We have done so much more for less, which is a good thing … and we did all of that while there wasn’t a dramatic increase of kids coming into the system,” he said. New influxes of kids into the system are straining strapped resources. Moreover, he argues, Florida’s foster system might be doing well relative to other states, but they still have a lot of ways they can improve and better protect kids.

The community-based care providers depend heavily on philanthropy to perform the basic functions DCF has tasked them with, which is exactly the type of local engagement that makes community-based care so effective. However, Kelly says that doesn’t absolve the state of its duty to properly fund the programs.

“The state has a responsibility to provide those resources, because we’re frankly doing the services for the state,” he said.

“They couldn’t do it, we are doing it, and we’re doing a much better job. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an obligation to make sure that they fund this the right way,” Kelly said.

___

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact her at eclark@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

Senate Education Committee talks testing tweaks

The Florida Senate Education Committee dedicated most of its weekly meeting to tackling issues of assessment bloat running counter to students’ best interests.

In the House, the motto has been “fewer, better tests.” Similarly, in the Senate, the bills that have spurred the most comment from committee members are those that address Florida’s testing protocols.

At the meeting, representatives from the Florida Department of Education discussed current education accountability standards. Mary Jane Tappen, vice chancellor of K-12 education, laid out the high school graduation requirements, which include a mandatory online credit.

Deputy Commissioner Juan Copa explained the spring 2017 testing window, which runs from Feb. 22 to May 19.

“There is a difference between testing windows and testing time,” Copa said.

Testing windows provide flexibility for districts to give assessments at the time that best suits them within a period of several weeks. Different assessments are assigned either a one-week or two-week period during which the school districts can hold the exam.

Copa said that a fourth-grader will take assessments in language arts and math, which are given over two days each for 80 minutes a day.

“Even though the assessment window may be 25 days [for the two fourth-grade assessments], for a particular fourth-grade student that’s four days with a total of 5 hours, 20 minutes,” Copa said.

Bills, bills, bills

State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, discussed SB 964, which would allow for several approved national tests (such as the PSAT) to be used as advancement criteria in lieu of the Florida Standards Assessments, if desired. His bill also would allow for students to take exams by pencil and paper, instead of electronically. He told the committee that while an emphasis on computer literacy and competency was important, computer-based testing denied some students the opportunity to showcase their real knowledge.

In addition, SB 964 would eliminate some tests, such as the ninth-grade FSA and many end-of-course assessments, excluding those for Algebra 1 and Biology

In a separate bill, SB 584, Montford laid out alternative pathways to receiving a high school diploma for students that struggled with the 10th grade ELA and Algebra 1 end of course exams.

“Relegation of these students who are otherwise academically successful to a certificate of completion diminishes their opportunities for future employment and post-secondary education,” he said.

Other senators discussed the effect of over-testing at lower grade levels.

State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, argued that the third-grade mandatory retention requirement, which requires schools to hold back students who fail the third-grade literacy exam, was an example of over-use of high stakes testing. He proposed making that optional. Schools would still have the ability to hold back students, but more teacher discretion would be allowed to determine if the poor test result was a true reflection of reading ability.

State Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, presented SB 926. Her bill did not mandate any specific exam cuts, but she said that tests should be “purposeful and meaningful.” The Flores bill would require that teachers get student test results and district feedback sooner. In addition, her bill would tweak the standard for a Level 3 score on ELA and math assessments from “satisfactory” to “proficient.” Level 1 is the lowest score; Level 5 is the highest.

Shawn Frost, president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, spoke in support of the Flores bill for expedited results, as well as a bill by state Sen. Greg Steube, R- Sarasota, that would require all exams to be published three years after being given.

Frost told the committee that it was important to consider the “opportunity costs of testing,” particularly with a testing window beginning three months before the end of the school year.

However, Catherine Baer, chair of the Florida Tea Party Network and member of the bipartisan education group Common Ground, had problems with the Flores bill, which she said didn’t reduce testing volume or lower the stakes.

Marie-Claire Leman, a Tallahassee mother of three and frequent advocate on public school testing concerns, took issue with another element of the Flores bill: making “proficient” the standard for a Level 3 passing grade on certain FSA exams.

“It would fuel the market for vouchers and for-profit charters at the expense of public education,” she said. Leman feared that although this bill would align with National Assessment of Education Progress standards, it would increase failure rates and lower school grades.

Another pair of bills addressed closing the gap between regulations for traditional public schools and charter schools. Charters generally adhere to less-onerous standards.

State Sen. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, proposed that local school districts be allowed to follow the Florida building code instead of adhering to state requirements for educational facilities, which he called excessively prescriptive. Charters currently only follow the state building code.

Similarly, a bill by committee vice chair Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, would allow traditional public schools to calculate maximum class size by school-level averages, which charters do, as opposed to at the classroom level.

The Senate Education Committee meets again Monday, March 27, to focus on charter schools.

___

Erin Clark reports for Florida Watchdog. Contact her at eclark@watchdog.org and on Twitter.

 

Florida TaxWatch: School choice options a better bargain for state

A recent report by Florida TaxWatch refutes one of the key arguments made by school choice opponents — namely, that charter and choice schools end up hurting traditional schools by diverting funding.

Further, the paper says that voters might be missing a larger part of the picture: how much taxpayer money is actually going to K-12 education.

The Florida Department of Education has reported a per-pupil appropriation of $7,178 for the 2016-17 school year. The FLDOE touts historic funding levels of $20.2 billion for the year, $11.3 billion of which come from the state.  But according to the analysis by Florida TaxWatch, those oft-invoked numbers overlook other money that is also spent on education.

Public schools in Florida draw money from a lot of sources. In 1973, the Florida Education Finance Program was established to manage the state’s education funds and distribute them equitably across all districts in recognition of varying geographic and financial situations.

For fiscal 2015-16, FEFP calculates that the per-pupil expenditure was $7,090.  However, public schools get funding for other programs that the FEFP calculations do not take into consideration, TaxWatch says, including capital projects and debt service. When taking these additional funding sources into account, TaxWatch says that the true cost of public education in Florida was $10,308 per K-12 student in 2015-16.

It’s not just Florida that under-reports the amount of money that gets funneled into education. A 2010 Cato Institute report found that real education spending in five of the nation’s largest metro areas was 44 percent higher than officially reported.

“Most citizens don’t have any idea how much is spent per child in public schools,” wrote Cato policy analyst Adam Schaeffer. “When asked how much was spent in their state, only about 7 percent of Floridians guessed a figure that was close to or higher than the [National Center for Education Statistics] figure of about $9,800 for that year. Sixty-three percent thought their state was spending $6,000 or less.”

However, the TaxWatch analysis shows that funding for charter school students in 2015-16 was significantly closer to the FEFP’s calculations, at $7,307. That’s $3,000 less per student compared with funding for students in traditional public schools.

TaxWatch found that the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program is even cheaper for the state.

The program gives corporations tax credits in return for funding scholarships that allow low-income students to pay for private school tuition, up to a set yearly cap. The FLDOE reports that the amount spent per scholarship student was $5,677 for 2015-16.

The discrepancy in funding received by public schools and charters can be explained in part by the range of services both offer. The funding formula for public schools includes money for things such as transportation and programs for English-language learners, which not all charters provide.

South Florida NPR station staves off takeover by school board

A dispute between South Florida’s NPR-affiliate and the Miami-Dade County Public School Board has raised questions about fiscal mismanagement and the role of the school system in moderating WLRN’s news content.

Normally, a school board wouldn’t have any say in what a local news station produces. But in the case of WLRN, the school board is the licensee for WLRN’s radio and television stations.

The Federal Communications Commission initially issued the WLRN radio license to Dade County schools in 1948. The station is currently managed by South Florida Public Media, which employs the news personnel, and funded by Friends of WLRN.

The Miami-Dade school board disrupted the long-standing balance between MDCPS, as the license owner, and the WLRN reporting staff in January, when the school board sent WLRN a new operating agreement. Under its terms, WLRN’s reporting staff would need to be rehired as school district employees.

In addition, the proposal reminded the nonprofit groups Friends of WLRN and South Florida Public Media that WLRN is a registered trademark of the school board, and thus its brand perception reflects on the board. It exhorts them to “always present the brand in a positive manner.”

It’s a move that has been characterized by other local news outlets as a “power grab,” and sharply contested by advocates for WLRN and independent reporting. However, between revelations of financial misconduct and fears of a loss of journalistic freedom, both sides are left looking a little worse for the wear.

Frank LoMonte, former Florida journalist and current executive director of the Student Press Law Center, told Watchdog that any type of direct elected official control over a news organization creates the potential for abuse and overreach.

“School authorities are notoriously image-conscious, and the temptation may become overwhelming to use the board’s authority to influence the tone of news coverage,” LoMonte said. “Schools need rigorous and independent journalistic oversight because they’re so hugely influential and they spend so much money.”

WLRN receives significant funding through Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants, as well as from corporate and individual donors and underwriters. In fiscal 2015, CPB allocated $1.25 million to WLRN-TV, nearly $500,000 to WLRN-FM, and an additional $200,000 to Friends of WLRN.

Contributions from Friends of WLRN are significantly higher. For 2015, WLRN-FM reported grant and subsidies revenues totaling close to $9.2 million. Nearly 85 percent of that was funneled in by Friends of WLRN. For WLRN-TV, approximately $2.1 million out of six million in revenue came from Friends in 2015.

The school district also contributes funding to WLRN out of the money the school board makes from leasing extra broadband capacity. The school board’s contribution is earmarked for salaries, benefits, and facilities upkeep, although the amount the district contributes is in dispute.

According to LoMonte, changing the WLRN model to one in which it was under the school board’s direct control would weaken the station’s journalistic integrity.

“The potential for journalists to be intimidated into shading their coverage, even implicitly, is significantly greater when the paychecks are coming from government officials than from a charitable foundation, even one with an ideological agenda,” he said.

“School authorities are notoriously image-conscious, and the temptation may become overwhelming to use the board’s authority to influence the tone of news coverage.”

— Frank LoMonte, former Florida journalist and current executive director of the Student Press Law Center

“Most nonprofit journalism organizations have a wide range of donors so that no single one is dominant, but in this arrangement, the school board would have a potentially dominant level of authority. It’s not just indirect influence, it’s direct influence.”

The South Florida journalism community shared LoMonte’s concern over the editorial content of a school-controlled station, with immediate outcry from local papers.

“At a time when he most needs the public’s good will, Carvalho risks outraging citizens who depend on public broadcasting — especially local public radio — to help tell the stories of our communities, our governments and our lives,” the Sun-Sentinel wrote in a February opinion piece.

Extenuating circumstances

Watchdog did not hear back from the office of the superintendent or from the Miami-Dade County Public Schools communications team. However, Carvalho told the Sun-Sentinel that influencing the tone of coverage was not the school board’s motivation.

“This started out as a detection of egregious financial issues that led to the discovery of this shadow entity, created by Friends, not known to us … that has been engaged in financial dealings that spooked the federal government and will result in financial fines because of a series of hidden transactions and misreporting,” said Carvalho.

By “shadow entity,” Carvalho is referring to South Florida Public Media, the nonprofit created by Friends of WLRN, itself a nonprofit entity that handles fundraising and staff payment. South Florida Public Media is the body that has employed WLRN staff since 2009. Prior to that, WLRN staffers were paid by the Miami Herald, with whom WLRN still shares work space in Doral. According to the Herald, the current arrangement is supposed to “serve as a firewall to protect journalists from being influenced by school administrators or the station’s donors.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this arrangement of multiple overlapping entities has opened the door to financial missteps. In 2014, some of the salary information for Friends of WLRN, which officially manages the station, came to light. The director of corporate marketing at the time, Michael Peyton, was making $400,000 a year.

An unnamed WLRN employee told the Miami New Times that many donors aren’t aware of how their money is being spent.

“It disappears into the great Friends black hole. I guess it goes into Michael Peyton’s pockets and God knows where else,” the staffer said.

WLRN again caught heat in January of this year, when an audit revealed that it had misreported sales revenues, leading to bigger grants from CPB. Dwight Hill, volunteer chairman of WLRN, told the Herald that WLRN will likely have to refund as much as $900,000 in grant money.

John Labonia, station manager at WLRN, declined Watchdog’s request for comment.

Reasonable doubt

The financial missteps underscore that the school district’s stated concerns were not without foundation.

“Under FCC laws, the licensee is responsible for the conduct of the station,” Charlie Firestone, vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of their communications and society program, told Watchdog. “So if there was financial wrongdoing going on, they have the chance of losing their license altogether.”

Firestone acknowledged that a license revocation is a rare event, but stressed that the license is too valuable a commodity to put at risk. “They are essentially publishers, so they need to be aware of what goes out over their station and exercise broad control.”

Firestone said that how the school board chooses to exercise its control is important if it wants to avoid potential First Amendment concerns.

“On the other hand, putting e school compensation system would minimize the ability of the station to bring in the kind of talent that most public broadcasting systems these days have at the high level.”

The Sun-Sentinel echoed that concern.

“Who would be crazy enough to pursue a story about dropouts, detentions or, God forbid, unappetizing food in school cafeterias?” the Sun Sentinel asked. “We hear that last story, reported by a Miami-Dade schools intern under the supervision of a WLRN editor, made the district see red.”

Chicken or egg

Untangling the motivations for the school board’s proposed renegotiation — fiscal concerns or displeasure with some of WLRN’s coverage — is difficult, but the Herald reported that the school district was reconsidering its relationship with WLRN before the January audits.

Discussions about revamping the WLRN-school board agreement have been floating around for years. Last fall, with the relationship still frayed from 2014’s financial revelations, school officials took exception to WLRN’s reporting on topics affecting the school.

Officials criticized content, such as an article on school lunches and another investigating if the school district has fulfilled promises to tamp down on out-of-school suspensions. They also took issue with production values, such as camera work in an interview with Carvalho that cast the superintendent in poor light.

“Blaming the whole thing on Mr. Carvalho’s mood just doesn’t cut it,” read an email to one senior TV director. “Everyone has good days and bad. The aim here is to make his recording sessions something he looks forward to and from which he departs in a better mood, not a worse one.”

Regardless of what precipitated the proposed reshuffle of the WLRN-school board relationship, the community reaction has tempered the school board’s quest for editorial control, and negotiations between Friends of WLRN and the school board will move forward.

Daisy Gonzalez-Diego, chief communications officer for Miami-Dade schools, called the proposal merely “a first step in trying to come up with something that is mutually beneficial for both of us.”

Florida among several states confronting drug formulary questions

Some of the largest states in the union are considering legislation that would block insurers and pharmacy benefit managers from dropping covered drugs outside the normal sign-up period.

In Florida, HB 95 was introduced by state Rep. Ralph Massullo to prevent a drug being dropped from a formulary, or moved to a higher-priced tier, in the middle of the insurance plan year. Similar bans are under consideration in Illinois and New York, among other states.

A formulary is a set of drugs that insurers and pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs) arrange in different cost and coverage tiers. Patients can expect their direct costs to reflect a drug’s formulary designation. However, insurers and PBMs have the ability to adjust a drug formulary midyear.

“This bill is not a mandate. It doesn’t require any particular drug to be covered. All it requires is for the health providers to meet the obligation that we believe they have to the consumer when they listed the original formulary to begin with,” said Massullo.

The Florida measure, which was co-sponsored by a bipartisan mix of legislators, was unanimously approved by the Health Innovation Subcommittee. A companion bill has been introduced in the state Senate.

At a recent hearing, public testimony was sharply divided on the topic, with the opposing sides often arguing at cross-purposes.

Patients, physicians and patient advocacy groups argue that midyear formulary changes are nothing more than a “bait and switch.”

Dr. Bo Tucker, a Jacksonville internist, told lawmakers that patients often choose a specific health plan taking into consideration its formulary options. If a drug is pulled from the formulary midyear, patients are forced to switch to a drug that might not be as effective for them if they want it to be covered by their insurance. Otherwise, they will need to purchase it at greater expense outside of their plan.

“Notice that Medicare has had similar consumer protections for some time now,” said Tucker. “This is not a new concept.”

Clinical research suggests that patients do not benefit from changing drugs for nonmedical reasons.  A 2016 review of 29 studies on the effects of nonmedical switching on clinical and economic outcomes, resource utilization, and medication-taking behavior found that negative outcomes were especially pronounced among patients with well-controlled or stable diseases.

In August 2016, a group of consumer representatives that advise the National Association of Insurance Commissioners recommended formulary reform.

The report says that some formulary changes, such as removing drugs deemed unsafe by the Food and Drug Administration or adding newly approved drugs and biologics, are beneficial.

“However, plans should not be able to reduce the generosity of coverage after a consumer has enrolled,” the report states. “In particular, plans should be prohibited from making midyear formulary changes — changes made between the date on which open enrollment begins and the end of the plan year — that negatively affect enrollee access to drugs.”

Medicare already imposes limitations on midyear formulary changes, allowing recipients to continue using a drug for the remainder of the plan year at its original formulary price.

Texas also prohibits most midyear formulary changes. In Nevada, regulations promulgated in 2015 by the Nevada Division of Insurance similarly limit such changes.

Misplaced outrage

Pharmacy benefit managers and insurers argue that flexible formularies allow them to negotiate better prices with pharmaceutical companies and ensure patient access to newer, cheaper drug.

Brian Henry, vice president of corporate communications for Express Scripts, told Watchdog in an email that the Florida proposal would prevent the PBM giant from replicating its 2014 “victory” for hepatitis C patients. Prior to the approval of a drug to treat hepatitis C, many payers had refused to cover the existing $1,000 a pill treatment until patients progressed further into the disease, Henry said.

“As we understand it, the bill allows for the introduction of new brands and generics, but payers would not be allowed to move a drug to a higher tier during a plan year,” Henry said. “For example, this bill would have prohibited payers from excluding or moving Sovaldi to a higher tier when we struck the deal on Viekira Pak that ended up bringing down the cost of a cure significantly.”

It’s an oft-cited case.

But a recent paper by American Consumer Institute President and CEO Steve Pociask argues that a lack of transparency gives pharmacy benefit managers an advantage over other players in the process, and makes it difficult to track how much their negotiations benefit consumers and plan providers.

“The incentives for PBMs to maximize profits are disconnected from the incentive to minimize sponsor costs,” Pociask told Watchdog in an email.

Pociask’s report says PBMs are not incentivized to pass savings they negotiate from manufacturers on to consumers in the form of lower prices. On the contrary, he argues that PBMs contribute to higher costs for consumers and plan providers.

Numerous state legislatures are considering the kinds of transparency requirements that Pociask suggests.

In California, legislation has been introduced that would require PBMs to register with the state and disclose more about their practices. Kansas is pursuing similar efforts.

Robert Goldberg, vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, said that outrage about drug prices directed at pharmaceutical companies is often misplaced.

“The real story about drug pricing is how PBMs like Express Scripts and health plans are pocketing a bigger and bigger share of drug revenues while patients — especially those with the greatest need for the newest drugs generating the biggest rebates — are seeing their share of the invoice price of a medicine surge.”

Florida needs teachers, but high schoolers aren’t interested

As Florida legislators consider ways to get more high-achieving charter schools into the state, school districts have another concern: getting more teachers into the state.

The national teacher shortage is hitting Florida hard. Hillsborough County alone could use another 500 teachers. Advocacy group Teachers of Tomorrow identifies Florida as one of the top five states struggling to find educators, with a 5,708 teacher shortfall.

The Florida Department of Education’s 2016-17 report on what subjects are in greatest need of more instructors identified critical shortage areas in general sciences, physical science, education, mathematics, English for speakers of other languages, reading, and exceptional student education.

In these subjects, there are significant teacher vacancies and a dearth of education-program graduates entering the field.  A substantial proportion of teachers filling these positions are certified in other subjects.

In Liberty County, nearly one-third of all core classes were taught by teachers working outside of their field of expertise in the 2014-15 school year. Statewide, the average is closer to 6 percent.

Duval County, which is looking to fill 100 teaching spots, currently has 20 percent of core classes being taught by teachers working out of field.

“College students are not convinced that teaching will be a rewarding career path,” Pamela Carroll, dean of the University of Central Florida’s College of Education, told the Orlando Sentinel.

Palm Beach Superintendent Robert Avossa said that nearby Florida Atlantic University sent 40 new teachers to the district last year.

“I need 1,500,” he said.

Jacqueline Twiggs, lead state strategist for ACT Inc., told legislators at a recent Education Committee hearing in the Florida House of Representatives that the state’s teaching pipeline is shrinking faster than in other places around the country.

“Education is continuing to be an area students are not interested in going into,” she said.

When students take the ACT in high school, they are asked to identify their career fields of interest. Nationwide, only 5 percent of test takers are interested in education, which Twiggs said is part of a downward trend. Florida is tied for last place nationally, with only 3 percent expressing interest in education.

Twiggs added that those Florida students who do express interest in education are underperforming on the test compared with Florida students interested in other fields, as well as compared with education-minded students nationwide.  Only a quarter of Florida students interested in an education career are meeting the ACT math benchmark.  For science, it’s slightly lower, at 22 percent.

Delray Beach steps in it with puppy sale regulations

If passing one ordinance isn’t enough to curb the sale of puppy mill dogs, try passing two. That’s how they roll in Delray Beach.

Several years ago, leaders of Delray Beach got serious about cracking down on the sale of dogs bred in out-of-state puppy mills. In 2016, the City Commission passed an ordinance curtailing the retail sale of dogs and cats. In doing so, the city government found that once you stick your left foot into a situation, it’s pretty hard to pull it back out again.

“When the government tries to intervene in the market, it just forces them to keep intervening because they create a response in the market where people try to get around the restriction,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy for the Reason Foundation. He explained that the series of ordinances Delray Beach has crafted are a classic example of why market interventions fail.

But one Delray Beach business, Waggs to Riches, found a way to continue selling puppies despite the ban. Owner Kim Curler changed her business model to sell rescue dogs through adoption events. Now the Delray Beach City Commission is back targeting the situation with a new ordinance.

In February, city commissioners discussed a new ordinance banning small pet stores from hosting more than four rescue adoptions per year. Further, the ordinance would ban them from hosting adoptions from a rescue affiliated with the store. Under the new rules, small pet stores would need to apply for a permit to host four adoptions, and large pet stores are exempted.

The ordinance appears to affect one business: Curler’s.

“Generally, and in Florida, it is unconstitutional to pass a law directed at [a] particular individual,” Jan Jacobowitz, director of the Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program at the University of Miami School of Law, told Watchdog in an email.

A law, she added, might be prompted by certain events, such as accidents associated with texting and driving, but not necessarily targeted at a particular individual.

“Specific inquiry is necessary to determine the motivation for the passing of the law and whether it is for the ‘greater good’ or directed at a specific individual,” Jacobowitz said.

In Delray Beach, it appears to be both.

“They did it specifically to curtail Kim from Waggs to Riches — that’s why they passed the ordinance. It wasn’t to hurt us as rescues,” said Sandra Dezelan, founder of Dezzy’s Second Chance Rescue.

Dezelan said that after the city banned the retail sale of cats and dogs, Waggs to Riches created a rescue organization, which was used to sell animals out of the same storefront.

“She [Curler] opened up Rosie’s Rescue so she could keep selling her puppy mill dogs,” Dezelan said. Dezelan’s organization partners with pet store giant PetSmart, so the City Commission’s adoption restrictions won’t affect her dogs. Businesses with a 5,000-square-foot space or larger — roughly the size of an NBA basketball court — are explicitly exempted.

As written, the ordinance will not limit the ability of big-box chains like PetSmart and Pet Supplies Plus to host adoptions. Pet Supplies Plus tells potential franchisees that the average store size is 8,000 to 10,000 square feet. Nationwide, PetSmart and Pet Supplies Plus account for over a quarter of all industry retail sales.

“Florida has 53 local ordinances, a quarter of all the ones in the nation, but no state law regulating retail sale of dogs,” John Goodwin, senior director of the Humane Society’s Stop Puppy Mills campaign, said. He said that while retail sale restrictions are common, adoption restrictions, like those in Delray Beach, are not.

“I do think that [city commissioners’] concerns were warranted, because I know the specific business that prompted their concern,” Goodwin said, adding that he had seen evidence for the claims that Waggs to Riches was selling dogs purchased from breeders who had been cited for poor conditions.

Curler did not respond to Watchdog’s requests for comment.

However, she previously told WPTV that the breeders she worked with were licensed and regulated, and that the older retail ban ordinance would not have any effect on the puppy mill industry.

Delray Beach Mayor Cary Glickstein told Watchdog the city is just trying to do its part to promote adopting dogs from rescue agencies over purchasing them in stores.

“By getting rid of the retail sale of the dogs, that’s all that a city like ours can do to cut off the lifeblood of these puppy mills,” Glickstein said. “We have reason to believe that the local store here was getting dogs from breeders that had been cited in the past.”

He added that the newest ordinance only affects Waggs to Riches because other small stores in the area discontinued the sale of dogs and cats a while back.

But the puppies for sale aren’t coming from Delray Beach, or even from Florida.  They’re coming from out of state.

“The Midwest, really Missouri, is the heart of the puppy mill industry, [and] neighboring states as well. It does extend up into Ohio and Pennsylvania as well,” Goodwin said.

He added that new licensing requirements from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and retail bans across the nation are having an effect on poor breeding practices in the puppy mill industry. “All this still misses flea markets, road signs, [when you] run ads on Craigslist and meet at the Burger King parking lot,” he said.

Glickstein says there is nothing the city can do about the business of puppy mills since they are primarily out of state. “We’re doing our part by eliminating the retail sale, which at least personally seems like an archaic way of dealing with such a thing.”

It’s also not necessarily effective.

In the case of Waggs to Riches, they didn’t stop selling dogs, they just moved all of the animals to their Boca Raton location.

“If they can’t define the puppy-raising practices that they don’t like in a precise enough way, then that’s a different problem,” said Adrian Moore, vice president of policy at Reason Foundation, a free-markets think tank.

“Their role is to deal with things that happen in the city. Trying to change the national market through a city restriction is stupid. It doesn’t work anywhere,” he said, adding that similar efforts to ban cigarettes and alcohol likewise get circumvented.

According to Moore, these types of rules could have the unintended consequences of prohibiting other small businesses from entering the market.

“The city is basically getting into these very arbitrary restrictions that don’t have anything to do with puppy mills because they’re trying to stop something they don’t like,” he said. “Legislating bodies are supposed to craft rules that everybody operates under. They’re not just supposed to pick people they don’t like.”

Glickstein suggested that this was something that could change.

“Ordinances that we craft are living, breathing things. As the contexts change, proactive local governments should be looking to amend and revise to reflect good policy and changing context,” the mayor said.

“If we find that we are discouraging bona fide legitimate rescue operations with that size limitation, then that is something we would revisit.”

bill in the Florida Legislature could strip municipalities of authority to pass local business restrictions, putting the decision making into the hands of state lawmakers.

Whether done at the state or city level, Moore says trying to affect a national market by limiting local access to a desired good is fruitless. “If people want it, they go get it somewhere else. They’re wasting their time doing something that is neither productive nor legal.”

___

Erin Clark is a reporter for Florida Watchdog. Contact her at eclark@watchdog.org and follow her on Twitter @EClark_gnu.

 

Federalism message echoed by Florida health subcommittee members

A day after Florida’s House Education Committee voted to send a memorial to Congress seeking fewer strings tied to federal education funding, a health policy panel made the same request for health care funding.

The House Health Innovation Subcommittee on Wednesday approved sending a memorial to Congress asking lawmakers to consider giving Medicaid funding to the states in the form of block grants.

“As you know, Medicaid is supposed to be a partnership. In reality, the federal government is in control,” said state Rep. Frank White, R-Pensacola, who introduced the memorial at the hearing.

“More than at any time in the past, states have the opportunity to have a serious, thoughtful discussion with the federal government about the nature of federal-state partnerships, like Medicaid, and what those successful block grants in Medicaid and other programs might look like,” White said.

White said effective Medicaid block grants would be based on the number of enrollees and adjusted for health risks and income levels. He argued that the states need flexibility to design programs tailored to their specific demographic and geographic needs.

In the public testimony on the memorial, speakers offered a mix of caution and enthusiastic support.

“In the redesign of health care, would you like to be in charge, as the state legislature? Or would you like a bunch of people in Washington to be in charge, dictating terms, creating more requirements, limiting your ability to manage the utilization of your own Medicaid program?” asked U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, a freshman Republican who previously represented the Panhandle in the state House.

Gaetz agreed that there were still details to iron out about how the block grants would work, but cited his previous experience as a state legislator and current experience in Congress as he told the subcommittee members that they were best suited to determining Florida’s needs.

“I can say with clear eyes that Washington screws everything up,” he said.

Sal Nuzzo, vice president of policy for the James Madison Institute, voiced his support for motivating Congress to move in the direction of federalism and allowing solutions for state-based health care access.

“The most efficient and effective way to guarantee access to actual care is the method of moving subsidization down to the state level where it can actually intersect with the specific needs of each state’s health population,” Nuzzo told the subcommittee.

Michael Daniels, executive director of the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology lobbying group, asked the members to proceed with caution, and to continue including the ultimate stakeholders — Florida patients — in the conversation.

Karen Woodall, policy director for the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, argued that in the context of block grants, flexibility equaled an erosion of the protections afforded by federal benefit mandates.

Several Democratic lawmakers offered similar concerns.

The subcommittee approved the memorial on an 8-5 vote along party lines.

Via FloridaWatchdog.org.

Hurdles to school choice remain despite Florida’s open enrollment law

Florida’s new open enrollment policies are still leaving students behind.

Florida has one of the most robust school choice programs nationwide, with 45 percent of pre-K-12 students in the state having exercised some type of choice option in the 2015-16 school year.

A new law seems poised to amplify that even more. HB 7029, signed by Gov. Rick Scott in 2016, will be effective for the 2017-18 school year. Under HB 7029, public schools are required to allow students to transfer in from anywhere else in the state, as long as they have the capacity to take them.

Still, parents in counties across the state are finding out that getting children into a school that suits them is more complicated than one would expect of an open enrollment policy.

In Seminole County, 1,000 elementary school students are being rezoned in August due to growing enrollment.

Don Fox, a parent of two children attending Keeth Elementary in Winter Springs, is facing the prospect that his children will now be shuffled a far distance across town. He says parents who want to use the new statewide open enrollment policies to keep their children in their current schools are being denied that option.

Fox and other parents in Seminole County have been told that district schools are at capacity next year and that no intra-district transfers will be allowed, except for diversity reasons. Next year the capacity at Keeth could shrink by 100 spots, leaving little availability to parents who want to stay put.

Fox said he thinks district leaders are taking advantage of the discretion HB 7029 affords individual school districts.

“They’re using this opportunity to help try to balance the school grades, and trying to move students from schools with higher grades (and) higher participation rates to these other schools,” Fox said.

Like many parents, the Foxes bought their home so their children could attend a specific school — originally Lawton Elementary. But they found themselves rezoned to nearby Keeth Elementary, which Fox said made sense.

Now the school zone boundaries have been redrawn yet again, and Fox’s two sons are being sent to Layer Elementary across town. His two boys will even pass Keeth Elementary on their way to Layer. Fox simply wants to keep his kids at Keeth where they have developed a sense of community.

“What upsets me so much is, that earlier this year when we heard ‘school choice,’ I thought that was a great thing,” Fox told Watchdog. “I had no idea that I would be needing that, and that I would be denied that.”

Up to the districts

Michael Lawrence, communications officer for Seminole County Public Schools, told Watchdog that Seminole County is still in the process of figuring out how it will adapt to the new open enrollment policies. Administrators are currently working on their definitions of capacity for the schools in the district.

According to the Florida Department of Education, individual districts formulate policies for how they enact open enrollment and determine capacity caps.

Curtis Jenkins, a consultant with the FLDOE, said that “schools have an obligation under this law to implement the law in the school district and make decisions about which schools are at capacity.”

“Rezoning and schools changing and getting ready for this open enrollment is not an easy task,” Jenkins said.

Other school districts besides Seminole County are finding the adaptation to open enrollment tricky. In the Tampa Bay area, officials from the Hillsborough and Pinellas districts have experience accommodating transfers across county lines. Now, however, they will be slower to give away seats to out-of-district students. High population growth and the need to reconsider school capacities complicate the issue further.

“Districts that have a little bit higher growth are worried about when they give a seat away to a non-zoned student and that student is now going to remain there,” Bill Lawrence, associate superintendent for Pinellas, told the Tampa Bay Times. “They know there are going to be new homes and they’re getting new kids. So I think they’re being a little more conservative.”

In St. Johns County, Superintendent Joseph Joyner told the Florida Times-Union that the open enrollment policies would make it harder for the district to plan for its own students, especially since St. Johns is a high-performing school district and likely to be attractive to out-of-district students.

“Any seat we give up is ultimately going to be hurtful,” Joyner said. “We will build schools purposely because we know the houses are coming in that zone. Part of this bill makes it difficult to plan.”

Hold the pickles

“I don’t think it’s fair to assume the worst about how administrators are going to go about doing their work, because I am confident that there are many who will be very accommodating for parents and students who want some form of public school choice, and I’ve seen evidence of that in school districts,” Bill Mattox, director of the Center for Education Options at the James Madison Institute, told Watchdog.

Mattox added that, best intentions aside, normal economic factors invariably come into play, meaning that there are times when parents and students in one situation get better treatment than those in another. Moreover, there is a “gravitational pull towards status quo” that makes school administrators slow to adapt.

Mattox compared it to ordering at a restaurant. It’s a lot easier for a school system — or a restaurant — to establish uniform, systematic practices. But, he argues, education is first and foremost about children, not schools.

“If you’re running an institution, a restaurant, you’d rather have every single person come in and say, ‘I’ll just have the burger the way you prepared it’ instead of saying, ‘Hold the cheese on this one and I’ll take the pickle on this one.’”

The tricky part for the school system is that a lot of kids don’t like pickles.

“When it comes to education, kids ought to come first instead of asking the student to accommodate to the institution,” Mattox said.

Show Buttons
Hide Buttons