Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Orlando Sentinel on domestic violence:
The toll of domestic violence in Orange, Osceola and Seminole counties is shocking: some 60,000 victims a year. In Orange County alone, domestic violence contributes to 20 percent to 30 percent of homicides.
As the Sentinel reported in December, law-enforcement officers across the region have been taking domestic violence more seriously, and pushing more cases to trial. But there are still loopholes in state law that need to be closed to provide better protection to victims.
Last year the Florida Legislature was poised to pass a bill to close one of those loopholes when an unrelated standoff over health-care policy shut down the session three days early. Now, with legislators in Tallahassee again, the bill is back, too — sponsored in the Senate by Altamonte Springs Republican David Simmons and in the House by Orlando Democrat Victor Torres. This time, it needs to become law.
The bill would make it a felony to tamper with or remove an electronic monitoring device on accused abusers who have had a domestic-violence injunction filed against them to keep them away from their alleged victims. Under current law, police who are alerted to a device's tampering or removal in these cases must go through an extra step, obtaining a warrant from a judge, before making an arrest. That lag time can leave a victim in danger longer.
The bill is based on a recommendation from the Orange County Democratic Violence and Child Abuse Commission. Orange-Osceola Circuit Judge Alice Blackwell, the commission's co-chair, noted that judges have no choice under state law but to set bond for accused batterers, and electronic monitors are a tool for them to enforce their domestic-violence injunctions. "Judges' orders should mean what they say," Blackwell said.
Orange County suspended its use of electronic monitoring devices in 2013, but their use could be reinstated if the county can come up with a system to oversee them more effectively. Meanwhile, however, other jurisdictions in this region and across the state use them.
This bill could save lives — if legislators don't let it die.
The South Florida Sun Sentinel on teacher evaluations:
Florida's Common Core-based high-stakes tests — which resume Feb. 29 — are supposed to encourage and measure critical thinking. Student scores on those Florida Standards Assessments are an integral part of teacher evaluations. So it is appropriate to apply critical thinking skills to the controversies surrounding teacher ratings in Florida.
As the Sun Sentinel reported, districts evaluated 54,000 teachers across South Florida for the 2014-15 year. How many were judged to be performing poorly? Twelve in Broward County, five in Miami-Dade County and one in Palm Beach County.
It is absurd on its face to claim that only 18 teachers out of 54,000 performed poorly. The obvious problems don't stop there. Palm Beach County gave 42 percent of its teachers the coveted "highly effective" rating. Miami-Dade deemed 34 percent of its teachers worthy of that rating. Statewide, the figure was about 37.5 percent. Those high percentages look like grade inflation.
Broward County, meanwhile, deemed just 14 percent of its teachers "highly effective." That number, which is up from 5 percent last year after Broward changed some evaluation procedures, seems more reasonable.
An outsider interested in valid ratings would suggest that Palm Beach and Miami-Dade should alter their systems to bring the percentages more in line with Broward's. Further, all three South Florida districts clearly should do more to root out bad teachers.
But Broward's teachers say their evaluations are less valid than those in Palm Beach and Miami-Dade. Sharon Glickman, president of the Broward Teachers Union, said: "Teacher evaluation formulas are decided by each county. Clearly, Broward's formula is severely flawed."
We suspect fewer top ratings hint that Broward's system is more accurate than the others. But that decidedly does not mean that the problem could be solved by conforming the other districts to Broward's system.
Under Legislatures and governors back to and including Jeb Bush, Florida generally has made a mess of school "accountability." They have become deluded by the idea that it's possible to create a test or series of tests that will provide objective data to separate good teachers from bad ones.
What they are discovering, after trial and considerable error, is that tests don't exist to measure all the factors that contribute to learning and sort out who is responsible for what. What if the student's family is poor? Or rich? What if the student doesn't come to class? What if the student is a genius? Who gets credit or blame for those and a myriad of other circumstances?
Lawmakers and educators have been making a more sincere effort to create a mix of objective factors, such as test scores, with more subjective assessments, such as classroom observations by principals and other administrators.
However, "sincere effort" does not translate to "successful effort." The "objective" test scores have been marred by computer problems that might have affected scores on last year's Florida Standards Assessments. No one will know whether those problems are solved until this year's testing is over.
And subjective measures are, well, subjective. Some will be more valid than others.
The uncertainty means that Broward teachers' complaints about unfair assessments can't be ruled out just because the percentages seem more in line with reasonable expectations.
All of this is important because evaluations determine pay and job security. Further, Florida's record of using evaluations punitively and applying them unfairly is harming districts' efforts to staff classrooms. As the Sun Sentinel reported in mid-January, teacher vacancies are a chronic problem in South Florida, and too many students are taking classes from long-term substitutes.
Meanwhile, nearly half of new teachers quit within five years, and the number of applicants for teaching certificates is in steep decline. Surely Florida's onerous and questionable teacher evaluations contribute to this growing problem. Yet the state is only tweaking — not fully reforming — its accountability system.
Critical thinking leads to the conclusion that the teaching profession is in crisis in this state. Fixing it is critical.
The Daytona Beach News-Journal on fracking legislation:
Before the Florida Legislature passes a law regulating fracking, it needs to seal the fissures the legislation would create in home rule.
The House two weeks ago passed a bill that opens the door to allowing hydraulic fracturing, commonly called "fracking." That's the process in which large amounts of water, sand and chemicals are pumped into the ground using high pressure to extract oil and gas deposits from rock formations. The practice is controversial for the potential harmful impact it could have on the environment, particularly with its ability to contaminate water supplies.
Indeed, those concerns are why more than 60 local governments in Florida, including 20 counties, have passed resolutions declaring they don't want fracking to occur within their jurisdictions.
However, the House bill (HB 191) and its companion awaiting action in the Senate (SB 318) would strip local governments of the power to prevent fracking, a not-uncommon move by the state called "preemption."
Fracking hasn't occurred in Florida since 2013, when the state Department of Environmental Protection issued a cease-and-desist order following a drilling company's release of 700,000 gallons of water and hydrochloric acid along the western edge of the Everglades in Collier County. The practice remains in limbo, and unregulated, in the state.
Supporters of the bills argue that they wouldn't authorize fracking to restart. Rather, the measures would require a comprehensive study to determine the effects of fracking in Florida and establish a regulatory framework (subject to the approval of the Legislature) governing the practice before permits could be issued.
But the bills also say that authority for regulating fracking rests with the state. The Florida League of Cities, which had opposed the legislation on preemption grounds, dropped its opposition to the House bill when its sponsors agreed to language to that would allow counties and municipalities to "adopt and enforce zoning or land use requirements" on property that is used for oil and gas development and production.
But that's ultimately a fig leaf, for HB 191 continues: "... so long as such zoning or land use requirements would not impose a moratorium on, effectively prohibit, or inordinately burden" such oil and gas activities.
In other words, local governments can zone fracking all they want; they can't stop it once the state gives it a green light.
The Senate bill also explicitly states that the state shall preempt any local ordinance or regulation, unless it is an existing zoning law adopted before Jan. 1, 2015. That's still not good enough.
Supporters of fracking tout its ability to bring jobs to the state, boost the economy and increase domestic supplies of oil and natural gas, just as it has in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Plus, last year the federal Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment on fracking's potential impact on drinking water resources, which concluded the practice does not cause "widespread, systemic" water contamination (a finding that environmentalists have challenged forcefully).
Nevertheless, the final say on whether to bring industry into a community should rest with local governments whose constituents must deal with the consequences, and whose voters can change leadership if they are unhappy with the decision. Preemption, though, takes that power out of local hands and puts in Tallahassee.
State lawmakers should be receptive to the concerns of the people they represent. Preemption ensures they will be ignored. Any legislation that enacts a regulatory framework on fracking must acknowledge local governments' prerogative to say "no."