Gov. Scott signs bill to shift students, money to charters

Florida governor signs fiercely debated education bill

By Elizabeth Campbell - Reporter , Brandon Larrabee, News Service of Florida
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Rick Scott signed a controversial and wide-ranging education bill Thursday, brushing aside nearly unanimous opposition from the state's major education organizations.

The 278-page measure (HB 7069), which didn't emerge in final form until the final days of the regular legislative session, deals with everything from school testing to recess.

It sets aside $419 million that will be used to encourage charter schools to locate near struggling traditional public schools, provide extra services for students at struggling schools, provide teacher bonuses and help parents pay for education services for children with disabilities.

The legislation also scales back standardized testing, requires daily recess for elementary students and helps charter schools get access to school construction funding generated by local property taxes.

Scott and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the main force behind the legislation, touted the benefits of the bill and a $100 increase in per-student school funding -- approved separately in a special session this month -- at a signing ceremony in Orlando.

"The historic funding we've secured, along with more choices for students, will give every family in Florida the ability to receive a quality education, no matter what ZIP code they live in," Scott said during the event at the Morning Star Catholic School.

The Florida Democratic Party said Scott and the GOP had "declared war on our public schools."

Virtually the entire education establishment, as well as some parents' groups, had urged Scott to veto the bill. They argued that it would move Florida closer to a privatized education system. While charter schools are public schools, they are often operated by private organizations.

Opponents also criticized the closed-door negotiations that decided which of a slate of education bills would be combined to create the final product, and what the details of those policies would be.

Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association teachers union, said the legislation "will do harm to our schools and to our most vulnerable students.”

"Blindly jumping into this so-called 'fundamental transformation' of how we educate our children is based almost entirely on ideology," she said. "At best this is malpractice. This is no way to build a high quality public education system."

The Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and a coalition of conservative and liberal groups focused on education, known as Common Ground, also called for Scott to veto the bill.

On Tuesday at an appearance at Angie's Subs in Jacksonville Beach, Scott told a large crowd that he was still reviewing the legislation. Scott said he wanted an additional $100 per student in the budget, but Duval County officials said forecast projections show it will only be about a $43 increase per student.

At a Duval County School Board workshop this week, the members agreed to use $3.2 million from the district's reserve fund to balance its budget, then try to repay that money in the next fiscal year.

Supporters included the Florida Coalition of School Board Members, a conservative counterweight to the Florida School Boards Association, and school-choice groups.

"This is great news for families -- Hispanics and others -- seeking better educational opportunities for their kids," said Cesar Grajales, Florida coalitions director for The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative Hispanic group with ties to the Koch brothers. "To many Florida parents, nothing is more important than ensuring their kids have access to a quality education, so they're prepared to succeed in life and to build their own American Dream."

The battle over HB 7069 spurred a deluge of tens of thousands of phone calls, emails, letters and petition signatures delivered to Scott. While many of those messages opposed the bill early on, supporters eventually closed the gap in the final weeks of the governor's deliberations.

After being unyielding in his push for the legislation during the session, Corcoran told reporters in Orlando on Thursday that he would be willing to listen to the concerns of opponents.

"We're going to continue to work with them, and to the extent that these things can get better or be improved, we're absolutely going to go down that path," said Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes.

The signing came just one day after Scott vetoed a higher-education bill (SB 374) that was a key priority of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

HB 7069 barely passed the Senate, clearing the upper chamber in a 20-18 vote last month. Senate Republicans didn't issue statements of support for the bill Thursday, while Democrats ripped into the measure.

"HB 7069 aims an arrow straight at the heart of public education in Florida, a system that is struggling to stay alive despite repeated overhauls, starvation, and mandates under the latest standardized tests-du-jour," said Senate Minority Leader Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens. "And it sets up a guarantee for the profitability of the charter school industry in this state by delivering public schools we've purposely ignored to corporate managers we've deliberately positioned for success."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, anticipating a Scott challenge to incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year, also criticized the bill, as did Democratic candidates for governor in 2018.

"This bill is another massive step toward turning Florida's public school system into a public school industry designed to benefit corporations and powerful interests at the expense of our kids and schools," said former Democratic Congresswoman and gubernatorial candidate Gwen Graham.

Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, called the signing "another deeply painful decision by our state's leaders giving tax dollars away to for-profit charter school executives -- instead of to our students."

WJXT/News Service of Florida 2017