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Guest Author

Jean Gonzalez Wingo, Lisa Murano: Everyone wants to help greyhounds

At a time when we can’t seem to agree on anything, there is still an issue that unites Democrats and Republicans: protecting dogs. We are proud to join the many community leaders across the state who support Amendment 13, a humane proposal to phase out greyhound racing.

As a state, we have a proud tradition of leading on animal welfare issues. Our first anti-cruelty law was adopted more than a century ago in 1889, but today we are lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to cruelty inflicted on greyhounds. Commercial dog racing is illegal in 40 states but continues at 11 racetracks across Florida.

At these racetracks, thousands of greyhounds endure lives of confinement, kept in rows of stacked metal cages. They are caged for 20 to 23 hours a day, with only carpet remnants or shredded paper for bedding. When let out of their cages to race, the dogs run the risk of serious injury and death. According to state records, 483 greyhounds have died at Florida tracks since officials began maintaining death data in 2013. These are young dogs that die unnecessarily for a money-losing industry that only exists because of a state mandate that other types of gambling must be coupled with dog racing.

Floridians have already voted with their pocketbooks, and clearly want greyhound racing to end. Gambling on dog races has fallen dramatically in recent years, and racetracks are collectively losing more than $30 million annually on this Depression-era relic. Taxpayers are also getting the short end of the stick. According to a report done for the legislature by Spectrum Gaming, the state is losing as much as $3.3 million annually on dog racing because regulatory costs exceed revenues.

Yet thousands of dogs continue to live in cages in this moribund industry. They die on the track and test positive for serious drugs, including cocaine, all so a handful of greyhound breeders can benefit from a state mandate that puts profits ahead of animal welfare.

This isn’t a complicated issue. Dogs are members of our families, and the racing industry treats greyhounds in a way we should never treat our best friends. Tolerating this cruelty not only causes harm to gentle greyhounds, it also reflects on us. We’re better than that, and it’s time for dog racing to be relegated to the history books.

One ray of hope is the diverse coalition fighting to help greyhounds. Amendment 13 has been endorsed by a vast cross-section of our state’s civic life, including animal welfare groups, animal shelters, animal rescue and adoption groups, veterinarians, dog clubs, current and former elected officials, candidates for office, editorial boards and news organizations, civic organizations, local businesses, environmental groups and churches. Every day, new community leaders join this chorus of support.

No other active issue is supported by the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, the Florida Federation of Republican Women, Attorney General Pam Bondi, and Democratic State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.

Let’s celebrate this common ground by coming together to vote yes for the dogs on Amendment 13. With our vote, we can help thousands of greyhounds, and once again take the lead on animal welfare.

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Jean Gonzalez Wingo is first vice president of the Florida Federation of Republican Women. Lisa Murano is secretary of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida.

Ashley-Britt Hanson: Avoid unnecessary risks on health care — keep fixing the ACA

While the idea of a “Medicare for All” health care system may sound appealing to Floridians in theory, I fully recognize that the only legitimate path to improving our broken health care system in the immediate future is to amend the already existing legislation known as the Affordable Care Act.

Democrats and Republicans should be focusing on practical, patient-centered solutions, not tearing down our health care system and starting from scratch.

As an attorney in Florida, one of the biggest complaints I hear from my clients regarding health care is a lack of stability.

Millions of Americans may have access to health care as a result of the Affordable Care Act, but inaction by politicians in Washington have led to higher premiums and instability in the marketplace. With so many Americans depending on the protections provided by the ACA, inaction is political malpractice.

Floridians want to be able to predict and plan for their health care costs. The continued instability in Washington makes it practically impossible for families to prepare a realistic budget. Without the ability to project health care costs, families are left to guess, which is an unnecessary risk.

It’s well past time for our elected leaders to put partisanship aside and get to work on improving the Affordable Care Act. Floridians can’t afford to sit by and listen to theoretical debates about health care, while Washington ignores the real-world consequences of their inaction.

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Ashley-Britt Hanson is an appeals attorney in Jacksonville.

Will Weatherford: $1 trillion economy means opportunity for Florida, but challenges remain

Florida’s economy continues breaking records.

Just a few days ago Florida’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) topped $1 trillion, the chief economist with the Florida Chamber Foundation announced. This means that if Florida was an independent country, our $1 trillion economy would rank us as the 17th largest economy in the world and ahead of countries like Saudi Arabia, Switzerland and Argentina.

Take a moment to let that sink in.

Florida, the third largest state in the nation by population, now has one of the largest economies in the world.

I had the unique opportunity as former speaker of the Florida House to see just how far Florida has come. During the Great Recession, Florida was impacted the hardest and our recession lasted longer than any other state. I distinctly remember The Wall Street Journal asking the question, “is Florida over?” Of course, just a few years later and after an incredible economic turnaround, the WSJ published an article commenting that Florida had found the secret to economic success. Florida has certainly come a long way in the last 10 years.

Over the past five years, Florida’s GDP grew by 27.2 percent — that puts Florida’s GDP growth rate in the top five states in the country. And, over the past five years, Florida has produced more than 1 out of 11 jobs in the U.S.

In fact, you would be hard pressed to find another economy with such robust growth. Florida has seen year-over-year GDP growth, jobs continue to be created and our unemployment rate continues to drop and has remained below the national average for the past several years.

Becoming a $1 trillion economy also means Florida’s reputation as a global leader in trade and logistics is once again cemented. The Florida Chamber Foundation’s work on their series of Trade & Logistics reports outlined very clearly how Florida can take advantage of its business-friendly economy and unique geographic location. A growing GDP will only help us remain a global hub for international activity.

While this growth is positive news, challenges and opportunities for Florida still remain.

The Florida Chamber Foundation’s Florida 2030 research initiative — which will soon be released statewide — shows the gaps Florida must close in order to continue to be globally competitive and grow smarter by 2030 and beyond. Consider that while achievement gaps are closing, 43 percent of third-graders still aren’t reading at or above grade level. And while 1 in 11 jobs in the nation in the last five years was created in Florida, our state’s 14.8 percent poverty rate includes 21.3 percent of children under age 18. While Florida is better suited than most states in these areas, the Florida Chamber will continue to lead reforms that create economic opportunity.

A $1 trillion economy is proof that when we stay focused on Florida’s long-term future and remain stalwart in our commitment to quality education, free enterprise and an unmatched quality of life, it suggests that we can continue to be one of the most exciting economic stories in the world.

Taking time to celebrate these successes is appropriate, but now is not the time to rest. I encourage business leaders to work toward a common goal of securing Florida’s future. If we remember that Florida’s challenges are truly opportunities, Florida will continue to enjoy the blessings of economic prosperity.

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Will Weatherford is a former speaker of the Florida House.

Brenda Mattson: No reason to scrap the ACA. Improve it.

As a nurse in Florida, I had a front-row seat to the positives and negatives of the Affordable Care Act (or ACA).

Prior to the ACA, I saw young people kicked off their parent’s insurance, rendering them unable to afford health insurance.

Prior to the ACA, I witnessed far too many Floridians unable to get health insurance as a result of a pre-existing condition. Floridians deserved better than that, which is what they got under the ACA. The ACA increased access to health care for Floridians and undoubtedly saved lives.

Is it a perfect piece of legislation? Of course not!

Should we rip it up and start over merely because there are ways we could improve it? Not a chance.

The answer to solving our health care woes isn’t to swing drastically toward a single-payer system or throw the baby out with the bathwater and start over.

The answer to solving our health care issues is for members of Congress (on both sides of the aisle) to come together and put country over party. We need health care solutions and we need them now.

Millions of Floridians who depend on the marketplace to buy their health insurance can’t afford for politics to outweigh their health. As a nurse, I can personally attest to the improvements the ACA has made to our health care system.

Now it’s time to build on those improvements and create a health care system that all Floridians can be proud of.

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Brenda Mattson is a registered nurse.

Joseph F. Rutherford: Refocusing efforts to improve Florida’s mental health system

In a health crisis, individuals turn to hospital emergency rooms across Florida to stabilize an escalating medical condition. Individuals impacted by mental illness require the same access to emergency care. People in crisis, their families, and law enforcement need a trusted resource to provide immediate care designed to assess and treat.

The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experiences mental illness in a given year. In Florida, it’s projected that over 2 million of our residents will be affected. Yet, despite the number of Floridians impacted by mental illness: Florida ranks 50th in terms of per capita spending among the U.S. for mental-health programs, with over 1 million dollars annually being eliminated in Hillsborough County for baker act services the past two legislative sessions alone.

When someone is in crisis and may be in danger of hurting themselves or others as a result of mental illness, Florida’s Baker Act allows them to be held involuntarily for an evaluation up to 72 hours. This provides an opportunity to stabilize the immediate crisis and develop a long-term treatment strategy with a licensed clinician. It is very important to understand that when a patient no longer meets Baker Act criteria, the law requires that person be released.

Community-based wellness facilities, like Gracepoint, work in collaboration with the patient, their families, law enforcement, the courts, and other providers and stakeholders not only during the 72-hours required by law, but always offering voluntary outpatient aftercare well beyond that window to optimize recovery.

For many, a continuum of care beyond the crisis window is essential for recovery. Every Florida community with a Baker Act unit should also have access to “step down” or transitional services for patients who are discharged, but need assistance in their transition to successful, independent functioning. Short-term residential care, as an example, provides individuals who may need additional care with continued support to move through the rehabilitation process and into the community more seamlessly.

These short-term residential beds were defunded by the state less than 10 years ago, resulting in a missing critical element necessary for patient success.

While there has been a positive shift away from state psychiatric hospitals to community-based health centers over the decades, monetary support has not followed to keep up with demand. In a day and age where we have greater access and understanding to medicine, care coordination, therapeutic treatments and technology, it’s challenging and frustrating for providers not to be able to provide needed services due to a lack of resources.

We all have a vested interest in providing adequate mental health treatment options. Without proper support, Florida faces a draining cycle of social, emotional and economic implications as a result of its continuing reduction of investment in mental health. I believe the dialogue should be focused on what is missing, rather than what is wrong with our mental health system. As the upcoming Legislative Session approaches, we will continue to advocate for Florida residents who are in need of programs, such as short-term or “step-down” beds.

The mental health needs of this community impact us all and the upcoming legislative session serves as a turning point for refocusing attention on providing services to better treat those potentially in peril without a safety net. Community health centers, like Gracepoint, will continue to advocate for expanded mental health services for our state as a whole and work to educate lawmakers of the critical services so many of our residents need to lead healthy and fulfilling lives.

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Joseph F. Rutherford is the chief executive officer for Gracepoint, a community health center focused on providing integrated mental health, substance abuse, and medical care to promote health and wellness.

Islara Souto: Patient protections and health care access must be defended

As an advocate for health coverage, I value the progress America has made in recent years. We’ve opened up health insurance to more Floridians, and health plans are welcoming all types of patients and ensuring they obtain great care.

These are trends we must entrench and enhance.

Leading the ACA enrollment program for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, I’ve seen how health coverage can change lives. We serve more than 400,000 Floridians with epilepsy, a serious health condition that can develop at any time.

A patient’s initial epileptic seizure will frequently happen in the first year of life, but others don’t experience them until middle or old age. One in 26 people will suffer from epilepsy in their lifetime — and for too long, the condition used to bar too many from obtaining health insurance.

In this, epilepsy had a lot in common with other chronic conditions. From cancer survivors to people born with a congenital heart defect or suffering from depression, patients with pre-existing conditions often could not get health coverage. The experience wasn’t restricted to those with the most serious ailments, either. Asthma and allergies could be enough to put insurance out of reach.

Passage of the Affordable Care Act changed all that. It guaranteed patients, regardless of pre-existing condition, access to insurance at the same price as anyone else their age. One of the most rewarding aspects of my job has been making people aware of these new patient protections, and helping them enroll in a health plan.

The difference was incredible for so many of my clients. With health insurance, many patients were finally able to see a specialist, find a medication without as many side effects, or otherwise experience better disease management.

Before the ACA, being shut out of health insurance meant being excluded from most medical care, including preventive services — while paying too much to get any treatment at all. Today, wellness programs — which include checkups, cholesterol screenings, nutritional advice and stop-smoking assistance — are included free with a health plan. Millions of beneficiaries can now get help they never could before.

The positive impacts of the ACA have been especially significant for vulnerable populations, including non-English speakers and immigrants. Health plans are offering care coordination in multiple languages. They’re conducting outreach to high-risk groups and those unfamiliar with health insurance, helping them understand what services are available and how to navigate the network. Patients are being encouraged to get care proactively, and their health outcomes are improving.

Illness, injury, and aging are part of the human condition. We can all benefit from good medical care. Fortunately, the ACA made health insurance more accessible and improved quality across Florida — that’s why must keep protecting and expanding these landmark reforms.

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Islara Souto is Statewide Navigation Program Director for the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida. She is based in Miami.

Louisa McQueeney: We have to protect ACA, pre-existing condition fix

The Trump administration’s refusal to defend the pre-existing condition exclusion and the ACA provision that insurance companies cannot charge more based on a person’s health status, makes you realize once what is at stake.

In February, 20 state attorneys general, including Florida, filed suit in the U.S. District Court of Northern Texas, claiming that when President Trump signed the “Tax Cuts and Job Act” into law, the individual mandate was repealed, making the entire ACA invalid.

In a letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, Attorney General Jeff Sessions states that with the repeal of the penalty, the protections of guaranteed issue (pre-existing condition exclusion) and community rating (the sicker you are the more you have to pay) are no longer valid either and the justice department will not defend these important ACA protections in the lawsuit.

GOP efforts to repeal the ACA have failed for a good reason since the public understands the protections the law provides and doesn’t want to go back to a system where an insurance company can deny coverage based on age, health status or put limits on the amount they have to pay out, leaving you to pay the rest.

While both sides of the aisle are talking about various forms of repeal with their own versions of replacement, no Floridian, of any political affiliation, should support the outright repeal of the ACA. It’s just too important to too many people. Instead, we should be using the protections afforded under the ACA as a building block to increase access and coverage for Floridians.

Protections like free annual well-care visits, including screenings like mammograms or flu shots, the ability to keep your child on until the age of 26, tax credits if you make less than 400 percent of the federal poverty level, no annual or lifetime limits, and the closing of the doughnut hole for Americans on Medicare.

The piecemeal repeal of the ACA by the Trump administration, and other attempts to repeal the ACA, continue to undermine the protections of the health law and increase the cost of health insurance. This effort will push older, middle-class Floridians, who do not qualify for tax credits under the law, into a more precarious, expensive health care system, where medical bankruptcy is rearing its ugly head again.

Rather than destabilizing the health insurance markets, we should all work together to strengthen and maintain consumer protections and reduce the cost of health care to Floridians.

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Louisa McQueeney is program director for Florida Voices for Health.

Joe Clements: The ‘big picture’ predictions on Election 2018

This cycle, our firm has worked with dozens of Republican campaigns from Cabinet positions to Congress. One advantage of our workload has been an opportunity to see the results of dozens of polls and focus groups conducted by several national and Florida-based research firms.

Without sharing specifics on data, campaigns or researchers, I want to give a few of my big picture ideas and predictions about what is happening this cycle in Florida.

After I analyze an article of research, I keep notes in a document, which eventually provides an outline for the macro trends I notice across research products. The items below are extracted almost verbatim from my notes and I hope they help provide some context for the current cycle.

Andrew Gillum is underestimated by establishment Republicans and Democrats. Democratic activists are angry about Donald Trump and want someone who shares their anger. In a crowded primary, Gillum has a built-in advantage with African-American voters and has a clear play to voters under 35 years old. He is also hurting Philip Levine and Gwen Graham by pushing them further left.

– The Democratic left flank is the single most underestimated factor of this election. Bernie Sanders was not a fluke. For the first time in a century, there is a true socialist/social justice/leftists voter group on the left with a clear guiding philosophy that pulls and energizes the rest of the party. The problem for Democrats is that their left wing is as far, if not further from center, then the Republican right.

– The Republican conservative right has replaced the role of philosophy (conservatism) with personality (Trump). There is no longer a uniting philosophy on the right outside of populist nationalism. Republican voters appear to differentiate between Trump and other Republican candidates but do want to see reflections of Trump in their candidates.

– Trump is equal parts headwind and tailwind for Republicans. Lower propensity Republican-leaning voters do appear eager to cast a proxy vote in support of him. It’s not clear the same energy exists to cast protests votes against Trump among lower propensity Democratic voters.

– College educated suburban and urban women are going to be the Achilles’ heel for Republicans. These women previously leaned Republican but dislike Trump and will vote Democrat if a good option is available. These “Whole Foods Moms” are the 2018 manifestation of the 2004 “Soccer Moms.” They still vote for security and safety, but Parkland, not 9/11, is now their marquee fear.

– Republicans have work to do on immigration. The issue is considered vital among the Republican base but general election voters think Democrats would do a better job handling the issue.

– Democrats have a real shot at Attorney General. They have decent candidates and room to use populist messaging that appeals to Republican segments on “Big Pharma,” “Big Sugar,” and “Big Insurers.” This race will be the clearest square off between an economic growth message and a populist message.

– Millennials are likely to comprise a significant portion of the electorate for the first time this year as they’ve aged into their thirties. My prediction is that men will break slight Republican and women will break hard Democratic.

– Guns won’t be the watershed issue in the general. Both sides will use the issue to drive turnout but it does not appear to be the strongest issue with moderate voters. We are likely to hear a lot about jobs and the economy come October.

– Floridians are generally optimistic about Florida’s path, which is favorable for incumbent candidates and parties, but Democrats and Republicans live in different worlds on the issue. Republicans are happy, Democrats are not happy, and NPA voters lean happy. Democrats really need the economy to slump and Republicans need it to keep growing.

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Joe Clements is co-founder and CEO of Strategic Digital Services, a Tallahassee-based tech company. He is also co-founder of Bundl, a campaign contribution management app.

Hold my beer and watch this! July 4th fireworks light up ER

As the July 4 midweek holiday arrives, Sachs Media Group’s Breakthrough Research Division wanted to look on the brighter side of our independence-declaring holiday — and by that, we mean fireworks, of course!

Specifically, we consulted the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) to look at the volume of recorded injuries involving fireworks in the past decade.

We were illuminated to learn from Jim Rosica of Florida Politics that Floridians purchasing fireworks continue to promise to use them “solely and exclusively in frightening birds from agricultural works and fish hatcheries” with few exceptions.

According to injury data, however, birds shouldn’t be the only ones frightened.

The NEISS uses a sample of hospitals across the US to estimate nationwide totals for ER visits involving an injury associated with consumer products.

Based on these data, a whopping 100,646 Americans have visited the ER for fireworks-related injuries since 2008.

And get this: a shocking two-thirds of these visits occur on or just after one day of the year: July Fourth. Comparatively, Independence Day sees nearly seven times as many fireworks-related injuries as New Year’s Eve each year.

So what happens to cause these injuries? Well, based on the data, we can infer that most injuries involve lighting mistakes. Over 20 percent of all hospital visits due to fireworks include an injury to the hand, and another 12 percent involve an injury of the fingers.

The head also sees as a fair amount of action with 20 percent of all fireworks-related ER visits relating to the eyes, 12 percent to the face area, 3 percent to the ear, and 2 percent to the head.

Less than 1 percent of reported injuries involve the “pubic region,” though this stat may not be of much comfort to the estimated 319 men who experience such an injury each year.

Take these data as a precautionary tale for your July Fourth weekend festivities: don’t pick up a lit firework, stay away from Roman candles, and please, if you find yourself saying to your friend “hold my beer,” you shouldn’t start the fire.

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Andrew Bryant is a master’s student at Florida State University majoring in economics and statistics, and a former research intern with Sachs Media Group.

Bob Holladay: The Department of Education is flaunting the law

There is a term in the Florida Administrative Procedure Act for when a state agency goes rogue and refuses to follow a legislative statute: “an invalid exercise of delegated legislative authority.”

There are other terms for it, but I prefer the plainest: flaunting the law.

If it’s a high-profile agency (no names, please), the legislature might respond by threatening to cut salaries. The question is: What is it going to do about the Department of Education?

Since the beginning of the summer, DOE has been violating Florida Statute 1007.25(4), the legislative language setting up a postsecondary “civic literacy” requirement that passed as part of HB 7069 in 2017.

DOE has been violating the statute by contracting with the Lou Frey Institute at the University of Central Florida to create a new “bypass” examination for students who don’t want to take either the history or government coursework necessary to meet the new requirement.

They can’t do that.

Florida Statute 1007.25(4) very plainly says that DOE must adopt in rule and the Board of Governors in regulation “at least one existing assessment that measures … the required course competencies …”

The key word is “existing.” Existing when? How about when 7069 became law July 1, 2017?

How do we know that’s what the legislature meant? Because of the other language in Florida Statute 1007.25(4) mandating the creation of a statewide faculty committee to “develop a new course in civic literacy or revise an existing general education core course in American History or American Government to include civic literacy.”

Get it?

Students can only meet the requirement by passing an “existing” assessment, but the statewide faculty committee could have created a “new” course if it wanted to (it hasn’t so far).

The language is very specific: new or existing coursework, an “existing” test.

Eight months passed between the time HB 7069 became law and when the DOE first offered Rule 6A-10.02413 implementing it for colleges, and the Board of Governors offered Regulation 8.006, implementing it for universities.

Why, during those months, didn’t the “statewide faculty committee” create a new test to go along with the new course they were specifically authorized to create?

Because they knew they couldn’t.

Don’t take my word for it; read the staff analysis by the Florida House or the one from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) from the end of the 2017 Legislative Session.

Both make it abundantly clear what “existing” means.

There are some who are choosing to read “existing” as meaning the statute requires only one existing assessment and that DOE can create as many new tests as it wants as long as one of them existed before HB 7069. That doesn’t hold water either; the Florida legislature knows how to craft statutory language.

Why would DOE flaunt the law?

How about the fact that they got caught back in March trying to make one of four “existing” assessments to meet the civic literacy requirement the U.S. Immigration Services Naturalization Test? You know, the one I wrote about in March, with such college-level questions as “Name a state that borders Canada.”

When they were called on it, they withdrew the rule, only to announce that they were going to use the Naturalization Test “with supplementary questions.” Which is where the Frey Institute comes in. At their May meeting, the State Board of Education adopted Rule 6A-10.02413 without the Naturalization test in any iteration but were remarkably public that, sometime this summer, they were going to reopen the rule and insert the Frey Institute’s handiwork.

Why? After all, the three remaining bypass exams (the AP History and Government, and the CLEP Exam) are all genuine college level. I just graded the AP History Exam, and I know.

DOE was public about that, too.

They want something that is free, easy and online.

I’ve seen the work-in-progress of the Frey Institute; it replaces 58 out of the 100 questions on the Naturalization Test and makes them multiple choice. Would anyone dispute that that doesn’t make it a new test? Why does DOE think it can create a new test and claim that it’s an “existing” test?

Here’s the lowdown: the original Naturalization Test was abandoned because it did not meet the competencies spelled out in Florida Statute 1007.25(4), because the answers are available online, and because it is fifth-grade level.

At a March 30 rule development workshop, DOE tried to claim that 14 states already use the Naturalization Test for Civic Literacy, but then was also forced to admit that none of them use it for a college level requirement. Florida would be the first. The new test will also be online. How many times can you take it? Are the questions the same, no matter how many times?

The new test retains more than 40 of the original questions whose answers are online now (how about that for a boost?) and still does not meet all the competencies listed in both the statute and rule itself. And it’s a NEW test.

DOE has had over a year to work on this, and they still can’t read a simple statute.

Why go to all this trouble? The answer is pretty clear to me: DOE is not interested in your college student actually learning the history and government necessary to be civically literate.

Under pressure from universities who don’t want to spend the money to teach the extra courses (despite the fact that they would clearly make money from them), they are interested in being able to report that 50 percent, 75 percent, 95 percent of college students were able to meet the new requirement.

Even if it means “flaunting” the law to do it.

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Bob Holladay writes the Florida Bookman column for the Tallahassee Democrat and teaches history at Tallahassee Community College.

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