Education is key priority for Florida Influencers in 2019

With Florida lawmakers debating the arming of school staff and the sharing of teacher raises to charter school employees, education issues in the Sunshine State stood out as the forefront topic for the 50 respondents to the Miami Herald’s first 2019 Influencers survey.

Nearly 40 percent of our Influencers — leaders from the corporate, non-profit and advocacy spheres — ranked education as the top priority in the state.

Just over a year since the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School thrust the issue of gun control to the forefront, gun safety ranked almost dead last among our Influencers — but the ripples of the shooting, including a landmark school safety bill signed in 2018, can be seen in the increased concern about Florida’s pupils.

“From education quality to teacher pay to school safety — these are all things we must improve upon,” said Josh Boloña, the student body president at the University of Central Florida. “I am a Marjory Stoneman Douglas alumnus from 2014. I visited my alma mater a little after the anniversary of the tragic shooting. It was disappointing, to say the least, seeing the lack of hope that existed through that campus when I attended.”

Senate Bill 7030 aims to undo an exception in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act that prohibits teachers who exclusively work in classrooms from participating in the so-called Guardian program the act established, which allows school staff to volunteer to be trained by local law enforcement to carry guns on campus. The MSD Public Safety Act also raised the age to purchase a gun to 21 and added more mental-health services to schools.

Republicans and Democrats appear to be split on the issue of removing the teacher exception from the MSD Public Safety Act.

But many respondents of the Influencers survey focused more on the funding and maintenance of the public school system as paramount to the academic success of Florida’s students.

“Children receiving a high quality education is vital to every other issue on this list,” said Tracy Wilson Mourning, the CEO of Honey Shine. “We need to invest in our public schools and in our teachers. Many children in our state are attending schools that are falling apart all around them and are being taught to take tests and not necessarily to think and discern for themselves. We need to find ways to retain quality teachers and empower them to engage and encourage our children to have a lifelong love for learning.”

Florida’s public school funding was graded as an “F” in 2018 by Education Week.

The Ways and Means Committee in the Florida House on Thursday voted through a bill requiring school districts to share teacher raises with charter schools following local referendums to raise property taxes.

Fedrick Ingram, the president of the Florida Education Association, said the Legislature has “neglected to adequately fund our neighborhood public schools for a decade.”

“We are at a critical point as Florida faces a rapidly growing teacher shortage,” he said. “Our children deserve world-class public schools. If the Legislature is serious about making sure our students have high-quality education, they need to do whatever it takes to make that happen now.”

Trailing behind education among our Influencers’ priorities were healthcare (14 percent), housing affordability (12 percent), sea level/climate change (10 percent), traffic/transportation (8 percent) and growth and development (8 percent).

The Influencers were asked to rank 10 issues that were identified by more than 600 Herald/el Nuevo Herald/Bradenton Herald readers as the most important for the state. Among Miami Herald readers, sea level rise/climate change, traffic/transportation and education ranked highest. Spanish-speaking readers of El Nuevo Herald ranked traffic, housing and income inequality as their priorities.

Water quality (4 percent), gun safety (2 percent), felon voting rights (0 percent), and Immigration (0 percent) ranked last among Influencers.

Influencers tended to have strong feelings on the environmental questions — both as the most important and least important of the issues being ranked this year. Sea level rise was ranked in the top three by 13 influencers and ranked in the bottom three by 16 Influencers. Water quality/red tide was ranked in the top three by 12 influencers and in the bottom three by 17 influencers. By contrast, no one ranked education in the bottom three, one put housing in the bottom three and only six put healthcare at the bottom.

On the healthcare issue, providers worry that free-market proposals by House Speaker José Oliva could damage healthcare quality and access. Of special concern to Democrats in the Legislature and healthcare providers is House Bill 21, which would end mandatory state approval of a new hospital.

Wifredo Ferrer, the executive partner at Holland & Knight in Miami, said price transparency and expanding Medicaid would be a good start to making quality care more affordable.

“Quality healthcare is unaffordable for far too many Floridians,” he said. “And Florida should prioritize support for the Critical Care Fund, which provides additional funding to hospitals serving vulnerable Medicaid patients.”

The issue of affordable housing was highlighted during the 2018 Influencers survey around income inequality, which Influencers mentioned again this year as a top issue.

Two companion bills in the Florida Legislature would restrict local cities and counties from adopting mandatory affordable housing ordinances.

In Miami-Dade County, legislation before the county commission would increase the cap on prices that affordable-housing developers can charge for homes on county land or with county money. Improving access to affordable housing is a key pillar of the platform of one county commissioner running for mayor, and it’s a main issue for others planning to run for Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s seat in 2020.

Development and affordable housing go hand in hand, Influencers say. Some are concerned about expanding Florida’s metro areas in ways that sustain mobility and reduce traffic woes.

In Miami-Dade, more than 400,000 households pay more than they can afford on their rent or mortgage, according to Annie Lord, the executive director of Miami Homes for All.

She said Florida’s “affordable housing crisis” threatens the economy and the well-being of the public.

“This is thanks to low wages, high home prices, and rapidly rising construction costs — market forces that exist throughout the state,” she said. “As living in Florida becomes more and more out of reach for our workforce, our biggest industries (including hospitality, health and construction) face a serious risk to their continuity and viability.”

Influencers were also asked how well Florida officials are doing in focusing on policy solutions that address the needs of all state residents. They’ll be asked that “benchmark’’ question during every monthly survey this year. Their answers:

Fair: 50 percent

▪Good: 35 percent

▪Poor: 11 percent

▪Excellent: 4 percent