Recent editorials from Florida newspapers:
The Palm Beach Post on problems with Florida’s unemployment system:
At the risk of sounding like a record (remember those?) that continuously skips to the point of irritation, we must ask: What’s the progress on updating CONNECT, Florida’s infamous unemployment compensation system that has the unsavory reputation for being one of the nation’s worst?
Unfortunately, the answer seems to be “not much” — a particularly unsatisfactory response just now. The resurging coronavirus pandemic is surely causing many employers to consider job cuts. And the renewal of additional federal benefits to unemployment checks (normally paid through the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, or DEO) is again sending more desperate applicants to a program that was designed with “as many kinds of pointless roadblocks along the way so people just say, ‘Oh the hell with it!‘”
Those were Gov. Ron DeSantis’ words last summer when confronted with CONNECT’s problems. The state’s response now? Crickets.
Unemployed Floridians deserve better. Many are already hurting, thanks to the Dec. 26 disruption of federal jobless benefits prompted by the president’s antics in delaying the signing of the bipartisan congressional relief package.
Now that the bill is law, the $300-a-week federal payouts plus Florida’s $275-a-week (maximum) payments will boost benefits to a maximum $575 a week. Yet, delays may be in store as state officials aren’t sure when those federal benefits will restart and if the state has to re-apply with the U.S. Department of Labor to receive them.
CONNECT’s history reads like a technological and bureaucratic horror story. The state’s initial contract with Deloitte Consulting was amended several times. The project came in $14 million over budget and had difficulty processing claims when it was launched in 2013.
Since then, the program underwent three audits, which flagged problems but never led to meaningful upgrades until this year when a Pew Research Center analysis found — shockingly — that fewer than 8% of jobless Floridians who applied for benefits actually received them.
The state then spent roughly $25 million to improve the computer system and phone networks to collect unemployment benefit applications. But when COVID-19 hit, the system crashed under the deluge of claims.
At first blush, the latest statistics from DEO, which oversees CONNECT, appear encouraging. Since March, DEO paid $19.7 billion to 2.1 million of the estimated 2.8 million individual claimants. A closer look, though, shows that the bulk of those payouts came from federal programs, like the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation/Lost Wage Assistance program, a short-term fix that has paid the department $12.2 billion and will provide the new $300-a-week payments that will expire in three months.
In the meantime, unemployed applicants are still having trouble accessing the CONNECT website. They are finding it somewhat easier to get through to call centers that DEO hired to help with the rush of applicants. But call center operators can’t immediately address problems that people may have with their applications, adding to the overall frustration.
The problems associated with CONNECT aren’t insurmountable. At the moment, though, the outlook is dim for a significant appropriation in the upcoming legislative session that would increase state benefits or extend the payments. That’s because the state faces a daunting budget shortfall that is likely to lead to severe cuts in services.
DeSantis must marshal more resources to make CONNECT a priority instead of an afterthought.
The Gainesville Sun on making up for lost learning during the pandemic:
The damage caused by COVID-19 can be seen every day in rising numbers of deaths and hospitalizations, but some of the harm caused by the pandemic is more insidious.
K-12 students had their schooling disrupted in the spring when classroom buildings were closed as a health precaution. Teachers and parents were left scrambling, doing their best to patch together at-home lessons but unable to truly replicate the lost learning opportunities.
The option to attend in-person classes resumed at school districts across Florida in the fall, but many parents kept their children home due to uncertainty about the risks. While districts offered options for online classes, technological gaps and the inherent limits of distance learning caused some students to fall even further behind.
While learning loss is typical when students take summer vacation or other breaks, the pandemic threatens to have a longer-lasting impact on children’s schooling. Initial research on spring school closures suggest that K-12 students returned in the fall with 63%-68% of the typical learning gains in reading and 37%-50% of the typical learning gains in mathematics.
The University of Florida’s Education Policy Research Center issued a policy paper in November about the problem and possible solutions. While there might be a temptation to put students in remedial classes, research suggests a more effective approach is keeping them in grade-level courses while providing ways to make up for learning loss, said F. Chris Curran, the center’s director and author of the paper.
“The silver lining is there’s a lot of potential to make up for it quickly,” he said.
But fulfilling that potential will be challenging. State lawmakers and education officials need to be more engaged in providing resources and other support to schools, which have been woefully lacking during the pandemic. Some possible solutions require additional funding at a time when the state budget is experiencing a massive shortfall.
Lengthening the school day or academic year would allow for students to receive additional instructional time, but would require changes to teaching contracts. Another possibility is using new distance learning technology to supplement in-person classes.
Gaps in access to high-speed internet service and laptops, however, have already prevented low-income and rural students from receiving remote instruction. Any solutions to make up for learning loss must not compound these disadvantages, particularly for minority students who already face educational disparities.
Higher-income families have been able to reduce learning losses by paying for private tutors, learning pods and other ways to improve their children’s educations. The paper proposes that the state of Florida consider providing financial resources for lower-income families to offer the same opportunities to their children.
There might be difficulties in parents accessing such funding or risks that it would waste money on ineffective programs. Perhaps a better way to make it work would be for the state to provide funding for after-school and summer programs that have been shown to achieve results, with the caveat that they provide a specified number of scholarships to lower-income students.
Elected officials need to figure out ways to pay for these kinds of programs during tough economic times. As Curran said, research shows that such an investment provides a long-term benefit in helping students stay out of trouble, graduate and get good jobs.
“Investing in education, investing in children, in the long term truly pays off,” he said.
The Miami Herald on a Florida school system placing a gag order on women who accused a staffer of sexual assault:
Miami-Dade County Public Schools insisted, in a settlement, that five young women who were raped by their physical-education teacher at Brownsville Middle School were not to “impugn or disparage” the school system in any way.
Fortunately, we’re under no such gag order.
The school system went to ridiculous lengths to conceal its almost $10 million settlement with the five plaintiffs.
First, it was a waste of effort. Under Florida law, the gag order was unenforceable from the start: “Any portion of an agreement or contract which has the purpose or effect of concealing information relating to the settlement or resolution of any claim or action against the state, its agencies, or subdivisions or against any municipality or constitutionally created body or commission is void, contrary to public policy, and may not be enforced.”
Second, the school system’s lack of transparency, concealing the settlement from the taxpayers who helped fund it. Surely, school district officials didn’t think that publicly owning up to paying the more than $9 million to young women repeatedly sexually violated by a district employee was worse than the rapes themselves.
Most infuriating, however, is that by the time PE teacher Wendell Nibbs was sentenced to eight years in prison in January, he had faced allegations of rape and sexual assault in the school system for more than 10 years. He was arrested in 2017 on two charges of sexual battery against a minor in familial custody. He resigned from the school district that same day and remained under house arrest. This is the crime for which he received the eight-year sentence.
While Nibbs was awaiting trial in that case, two of his former students sued the school district in federal court for violating their civil rights and negligence. A third girl joined and then two others, whose accusations led Nibbs to be arrested — again — while awaiting trial.
Prior to his resignation in 2017, nine students had accused him of sexual misconduct through his 15-year career with the school district. Where was the district’s obligation to accusers in its care? Where was its sense of accountability all those years? As the mother of one of the victims said to the media when the lawsuit was filed, it hurt “to see my child go through something that I thought the School Board was there to protect her (against).
“The School Board could have prevented this.”
Where’s the lie?
Back in June, Superintendent Alberto Carvalho tweeted: “Financial transparency and fiscal responsibility matter.” Not enough, in the case of at least five violated young women.
The Miami-Dade County Public Schools shouldn’t have fixated on muzzling Nibbs’ victims to keep them from disparaging the school system. Rather, the district was disparaged by its own misguided actions.