Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Miami Herald on the Zika virus:
With summertime mosquito season approaching, the Zika virus is beginning to get mighty scary.
In recent years, we've had to deal with other insidious threats, including another mosquito-borne disease, the West Nile virus. But Zika is truly sinister. It's most vulnerable targets are pregnant women and the fetuses they carry, which the virus attacks.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Brazilian doctors' initial suspicions — that had become widely accepted — that the Zika virus causes babies to be born with abnormally small heads, a condition called microcephaly, usually accompanied by brain defects.
Miami-Dade and the rest of the state are particularly vulnerable to Zika because a large part of the population frequently travels to and from affected countries in Latin America — and mosquitoes still fight for dominance in our tropical climate. Currently, Florida leads the nation in the number of Zika infection cases.
On Thursday, two more cases of the disease were confirmed in Florida, both in Miami-Dade. The state now has 87 cases; 35 are in Miami-Dade; Broward has 13. Nationwide, the number is more than 700.
Let's make it clear that there have been no locally acquired cases of Zika in Florida — travelers have carried the disease back. The Florida Department of Health has been monitoring the disease, but it now needs to be more aggressive and vigilant in protecting Floridians. The CDC's dire finding is a game-changer.
At the federal level, President Obama is redirecting $510 million in unspent funds — dedicated to battling Ebola — to fight this year's scourge. That's a smart pivot. It's too bad that Congress is dragging its feet in approving a $2 billion funding request — an ask endorsed by Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. The money would go toward mosquito eradication and vaccine development.
And Florida Gov. Rick Scott is paying attention.
In February, he directed the state surgeon general to activate a Zika Virus Information Hotline for residents and visitors, as well as anyone planning on traveling to Florida in the near future. The hotline, managed by the Department of Health, has assisted 1,394 callers since it launched.
Gov. Scott also had the surgeon general issue a Declaration of Public Health Emergency for residents in the 15 counties — so far — with Zika cases. If needed, Florida currently has the capacity to test 6,754 people for active Zika virus and 1,551 for Zika antibodies.
DOH is working with the CDC, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and local county mosquito-control boards to ensure that the proper precautions are being taken to keep mosquitoes in check.
A recent article in the New York Times pointed out that Miami-Dade County, with a population of 2.8 million, "spends just $1.8 million on mosquito control, enough for a staff of 17, of whom 12 are inspectors. In contrast, Lee County, home to Fort Myers and 660,000 people, spends $16 million a year and has a staff of 88."
But County Mayor Carlos Gimenez vigorously defended the county's efforts. He has said the county's mosquito-control section is prepared to respond "aggressively" with truck or aerial spraying should mosquito counts increase significantly.
Let's hope these efforts pay off.
The Ledger of Lakeland on Gov. Scott's recent move on divorce laws:
Once again Gov. Rick Scott has made the right call in vetoing an overhaul of Florida's divorce laws. Perhaps now advocates of these supposed reforms will understand that the governor values fairness, but rejects how they want to define it. So now, after two strikes, and before trying again to establish cookie-cutter formulas for alimony and child custody, divorce-reform advocates will take a long, hard look at what they propose doing to Florida's families.
Scott stopped a similar measure in 2013 because it would have allowed aggrieved spouses upset by judges' decisions regarding alimony to reopen those cases. Scott believed that a retroactive process could have resulted in new arrangements that would have left some people financially devastated. The governor rightly noted at the time that current Florida law allowed former spouses to petition courts to revise their payment plans.
Proponents stripped that language from the current bill, and Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, a supporter of the bill, noted on April 18 that Scott might endorse it this time.
Yet Scott rejected the measure — sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel and Rep. Colleen Burton, both Republicans from Lakeland — on April 18 because of a contentious child-custody provision. That proposed change would have made automatic a 50-50 split in child-sharing time, except in extreme circumstances, rather than permitting the courts to sort it out.
The 2013 bill also contained that, but it was not the primary reason for Scott's objection. It's unclear why the governor focused on that in this instance, but he made it clear he didn't like the potential effects.
"Current law directs a judge to consider the needs and interests of the children first when determining a parenting plan and time-sharing schedule," Scott wrote in his veto message. "This bill has the potential to up-end that policy in favor of putting the wants of a parent before the child's best interest by creating a premise of equal time-sharing. Our judges must consider each family's unique situation and abilities and put the best interests of the child above all else."
"Best interests" of the child — there's a novel concept.
State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, has for years been the primary force behind the 50-50 mandate. His near-militant insistence on it killed the divorce-reform bill a year ago, and hobbled it this year, at least in the governor's eyes. Lee claims splitting time equally is fair, and presumably he believes the current system treats men unfairly.
On the surface that sounds ideal. We would like to think that parents could set aside the acrimony that drove them to divorce and share in child-rearing. We don't doubt that many such couples have accomplished that, and happily exist in such circumstance.
Fairness, as defined by Lee's simplistic definition, is a slippery concept, however. As the governor correctly notes, each family is unique and the proposed, now-vetoed remedy fails to account for the fact that one parent may be a better parent than the other. It also fails to consider that one parent can provide a more stable and emotionally healthy environment than the other. And while Lee argues the system defaults to the mother, in many instances, as a court would recognize, that environment can be provided by the father.
The bill also does not account for the argument, made by critics such as Robert Doyel, a retired state judge from Winter Haven, that the 50-50 requirement could provide some disgruntled parents a bargaining chip to hold in order to wrangle concessions from their former spouses.
Lee maintains the system is broken. Perhaps changes are in order. But we should do more to find out exactly what needs to be fixed before we just design a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't account for individual circumstances. We've recommended the governor appoint a task force to help navigate this hotly contested, emotional political minefield. Now might be the time.
The Bradenton Herald on recent legislation affecting schools:
The monetization and privatization of public education across America by the profit-driven corporate education industry undermines traditional school districts by championing charter schools with government subsidies. This free marketplace favoritism toward private enterprise over public obligations became evident once again in Florida over the past week.
First, Gov. Rick Scott signed an enormous omnibus education bill that failed to include stronger accountability measures and standards on charters as discussed by the Legislature. One of the new standards requires "monthly or quarterly" financial statements from charter schools so financial difficulties can be detected early, possibly heading off a charters closure and the loss of the taxpayers' investment, a small step forward while stronger oversight failed.
Second, the four-week trial asserting the state's public education system failed to comply with the constitutional mandate to provide a "high quality" education for all public school students as a "paramount duty" concluded. The plaintiffs cited standardized testing, school grades and "school choice" options as the components of an inadequately funded system where accountability and choice deny children equal opportunities at obtaining the same high-quality education.
Third, last week Manatee County parents addressed the school board about the stressful and needless burden of testing on their children as part of a growing statewide Opt Out movement whereby students refuse to take the standardized test, rightfully described as civil disobedience. Parents have been complaining of bullying by district officials to compel their children to take the test, as state statute demands. Apparently, the state's "choice" focus does not include this parental option.
To be abundantly clear, the vast majority of charter schools provide a high quality education with financial stability and honorable missions. The state, however, should not favor one over the other.
Follow the money
The Legislature and governor hype choice as the crown jewel of education -- except for testing. There's a monetization angle here, too, with major taxpayer money. A testing corporation currently profits handsomely from a six-year, $220 million contract with the state.
Over the past 16 years, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding allocated to charter schools that closed later. Rare is the case that the state recoups any public money. The total state investment in that time frame was more than $760 million.
The new state budget provides charters with $75 million for construction and maintenance projects but allocates nothing to public schools, which must rely entirely on local taxes.
The law favors charters again with a relaxed standard that makes publicly funded but privately managed schools eligible for capital funding a full year earlier than the old mark of three years. Furthermore, the education package limits school-district spending on those projects, an unreasonable and unjustified attack on local control.
One crystal clear attempt to stiffen accountability measures, favored in the Senate, got blocked by the House. The upper chamber wanted to ban charter schools from "private enrichment," including individuals who indirectly or directly gain personal wealth based on charter school construction. Plus, charters that lease facilities from a private or for-profit entity or anyone with a connection to the charter school would be ineligible for capital dollars.
But those prudent measures were eliminated when the Senate traded those provisions for House acceptance of favoring capital funding for charters with high enrollments of impoverished and disabled students -- which was the original intent behind the establishment of charters in the 1990s. Somewhere along the line, profitability became a strong motivation.
The circuit judge presiding over the challenge to the state's implementation of the "paramount duty" requirements set by a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 1998 isn't expected to rule for several weeks. A decision in favor of the plaintiffs, Citizens for Strong Schools, would be a monumental rejection of current state education policies and priorities. Barring that, the monetization and privatization of public education will continue.
Impassioned citizens will be left with acts of civil disobedience and lobbying efforts in the hopes of protecting children and traditional schools from objectionable state education policies.