Good evening—and thank you so much for having me.
I want to start by thanking SASA for the kind invitation. I want to give a special shout-out to President-elect Craig Johnson and to the other members of SASA’s executive board.
I also want to thank Superintendent Giffin. Dr. Giffin, as you recall, we appeared on a panel together back in March, as part of a school safety forum held at Winter Springs High School.
That event was organized in the wake of the Parkland school shooting, and I thought it was very constructive. It demonstrated to parents and students alike how seriously Seminole County was taking the issue of school safety. You deserve to be commended for your work in this area.
With your indulgence, I would like to do two things with the brief time I have.
First, for those of you who may not know much about me, I would like to tell you a bit about my background and how it informs my views on public policy, especially education policy and especially public education policy.
Second, I would like to highlight a few of my efforts in Congress in the field of public education. For better or for worse, the federal government—especially Congress and the U.S. Department of Education—plays a major role when it comes to establishing policy and providing funding to support K through 12 education in this country.
My goal is to make sure that the federal government’s involvement in the education space benefits students and educators to the greatest degree possible, which is why I always welcome any feedback you may have on ways in which federal policy can be improved or funding levels for particular federal education programs can be enhanced.
In terms of policy, as I’m sure you know, the primary federal law governing K through 12 education is the E-S-E-A of 1965, which was amended by the No Child Left Behind Act, and was most recently amended by ESSA, which is shorthand for the Every Student Succeeds Act. That became law in 2015 and will expire in 2020.
As I’m sure you know, last month Florida became the last U.S. state or territory to get its state plan approved by the U.S. Department of Education as being in compliance with ESSA. The state’s proposed plan had been rejected by the federal government on five previous occasions.
In terms of funding, according to the Florida Department of Education website, it appears that Seminole County Public Schools received about $60 million in direct and indirect federal funding in the 2017-2018 school year. This includes about $36 million under core education programs like Title I and I-D-E-A for students with disabilities. It also includes over $20 million in funding for critically-important school breakfast and lunch programs, Medicaid funding for the provision of school-based health services, and junior R-O-T-C funding.
The federal contribution to the Seminole County public school system is obviously less than the state and local contribution, which is about $500 million annually, and which is provided mainly through the F-E-F-P and property taxes. But this is still a significant sum, and I want to make sure we sustain and, wherever feasible, strengthen the federal investment being made in Seminole County’s students, teachers, and administrators.
I know there is a vigorous debate over whether Tallahassee adequately funds K through 12 public education. I admit to having strong views on this issue, which I won’t belabor now since this is a state issue and not a federal issue. I would just note that Education Week, which publishes a well-regarded rating of state education systems, has ranked Florida dead last among all states in terms of per-pupil funding. Some may quibble with the methodology they used, and whether it captures all state funding streams, but it’s pretty clear that financial support for K though 12 education could be a much higher priority in this state.
Let me use that as a jumping-off point to talk about my background, and why education is so important to me, and why I so deeply appreciate those of you in this room who have dedicated your professional lives to helping our children and youth get a high-quality education. I think you are doing incredibly important, and noble, work.
· Discuss personal story and how education was single biggest factor in allowing me, a refugee from a low-income family, to achieve the American dream and to change your life for the better in a span of a single generation.
· Still remember the teachers who had the biggest impact on me. I can safely say that I wouldn’t be where I am today without the stellar public school education I received and the amazing, dedicated teachers who helped me along the way.
· I want every American, regardless of zip code or race or other factors beyond their control, to have the opportunity to get a great education. The student has to be willing to work hard, of course, but if they do they should have the chance to get ahead. I recognize this needs to start before formal schooling begins, which is why I care about pre-K education, the Head Start program, parents reading to their young children, etc.
In light of my background, ensuring that government at all levels, including the federal level, is making robust and smart investments in K through 12 education is important to me—as a professional matter, to be sure, but also as a personal matter.
So, with that as backdrop, let me highlight three areas of education policy I have taken special interest in during my first term in Congress.
First, as you know, after Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, many families from these two American territories moved to Florida and many of their children enrolled in Florida schools. In the case of Seminole County, you reported to the Florida Department of Education that, at one point or another during the 2017-2018 school year, you educated over 1,500 displaced students, including over 900 English-language learners and over 200 students with disabilities. In neighboring Orange County, they enrolled nearly 10,000 displaced students—the most of any school district in the entire country.
As soon as I learned about this infusion of new students, reading about it in local papers and hearing about it directly from constituents, I got to work on a bipartisan initiative in Congress to support school districts like yours. The goal was twofold. First, to enable you to help these new students, who have endured so much hardship and, in some cases, significant trauma. Second, to ensure that you could continue to provide a great education to your existing student population. They shouldn’t have the quality of their learning experience compromised because class sizes suddenly get too big or because classroom space or supplies suddenly become too scarce.
I am proud to say that this effort, which took many months, was ultimately successful. In February, my initiative was enacted into federal law and, in September, Florida received nearly $100 million dollars pursuant to this initiative. Of that amount, $3.8 million dollars was earmarked to reimburse Florida taxpayers for the additional costs that Seminole County incurred in the 2017-2018 school year to educate displaced students. Based on a formula it used, the state retained $2.1 million and the county received $1.7 million. I hope this support will be helpful—and please let me know if you are experiencing any problems accessing the funds.
The second issue I have focused on relates to English-language learners. Whenever I make a grammar mistake or don’t understand a particular idiom, I like to gently, or not-so-gently, remind people that English is my second language! I grew up in a home where my parents spoke Vietnamese, so I had to learn English in school and from my friends. Trust me: I know firsthand that it can be a challenge, that it can cause feelings of insecurity, and that people can sometimes be cruel when they hear you speak with an accent or mispronounce a word.
Last year, the Orlando Sentinel ran an article about how the Orange County school system is struggling to provide an adequate education to students who are English-language learners. In part because so many families have moved from Puerto Rico to central Florida in recent years, there just aren’t enough resources to hire bilingual teachers and to provide these students with the assistance they need. I suspect this is a real problem in Seminole County too.
I was determined to help—because children in this country who speak both English and Spanish (or another language) will be in a better position to perform well in school, to obtain some form of higher education, and eventually to get a well-paying and fulfilling job.
Under Title III of the E-S-E-A, the U.S. Department of Education provides annual funding to states, who in turn provide that funding to local educational agencies, in order to support English-language learners.
There is a problem with the allocation formula that operates to Florida’s disadvantage. The formula is based in part on the number of students in each state who are immigrants—that is, who come to the United States from other countries. But Puerto Rico, of course, is not a foreign country—and so students who move from the island to Florida are not sufficiently counted in the formula. Therefore, Florida does not receive the funding it should.
So I filed a bipartisan bill, called the ELEVATE Act, to fix this flawed formula. It hasn’t moved forward yet in the legislative process, but I intend to keep fighting hard for its passage. Because right now, students and educators in Florida, especially here in central Florida, are being shortchanged.
The third, and final, issue I want to discuss is the one I mentioned at the outset, and that is school safety.
I know we all agree that schools should be safe havens for learning and sanctuaries for teaching, free of violence. Students can’t be expected to learn and reach their academic goals if they don’t feel safe.
In addition to being a Member of Congress, I am also a mother of two young children. As mothers and fathers, there is nothing we wouldn’t do to keep our kids safe. Whether your child is in second grade or a senior in high school, when you say goodbye to them every morning, you want them to be focused on learning, on the activities they love, and on their friends.
The last thing you want is for them to be worried about their personal safety, about violence, or about being shot by a disturbed person with a deadly weapon—whether that person is a classmate or an intruder on campus.
At the federal level, we have taken some modest but meaningful steps since Parkland to improve school safety. Congress passed—and the President signed—the STOP School Violence Act. The law established three new competitive grant programs to be administered by the U.S. Department of Justice. They are distinct, but there is some degree of overlap.
One grant program, called the School Violence Prevention Program, will fund school security systems, technology to expedite notification to law enforcement during an emergency, and training for law enforcement to prevent students from harming themselves or others. Eight Florida jurisdictions, including Osceola County, recently received grants under this program.
A second grant program will focus on mental health, helping school districts identify and respond to students experiencing mental health crises. Two Florida jurisdictions received funding under this program this year.
The third grant program is designed to support the development of threat reporting systems, using technology like mobile phones, hotlines, or websites. Three Florida jurisdictions secured grants under this program in 2018.
These grant opportunities will continue to be available in the coming years. I am happy to work with you, with the members of the school board, with the Seminole County Sheriff’s Office, and with your Office of School Safety and Security to help you apply for these grants and to navigate the sometimes-opaque grant-making process. Please don’t hesitate to ask for my assistance if you need it. My door is always open.
I will end here. Thank you again for all you do for young people in Seminole County. You have my gratitude and my admiration.