TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A package of education proposals tied to the state budget, including one creating a program to encourage charter schools to set up near academically troubled traditional schools, passed the House on Thursday amid heated clashes.
The most controversial bill, creating the "Schools of Hope" program (HB 5105), passed on a party-line vote, 77-40, after about three hours of debate. The program and the House's budget plan for the year that begins July 1 would funnel $200 million toward qualifying charter schools.
The legislation is aimed at encouraging non-profit charter school operators with track records of high performance among low-income students to open campuses in areas where traditional public schools have received "D" or "F" grades on state report cards for more than three consecutive years.
Supporters say the bill would help children and their parents escape failing schools that have proven incapable of turning around. But opponents slammed the legislation as part of a long-running trend toward giving charter-school operators greater influence in the state's public education system.
"This is not a school of hope," said Rep. Barbara Watson, D-Miami Gardens. "This is a Band-Aid that has a sore festering underneath it."
One critic --- Rep. Patrick Henry, D-Daytona Beach --- said the bill harkened back to the "separate but unequal" days of legalized segregation. Democrats suggested the bill would only help those students who left the traditional public schools.
"We may save some of those children, but I guarantee you, you won't save all of those children," said Rep. Ramon Alexander, D-Tallahassee "So this is, in my opinion, the `Most Children Left Behind Act.' "
But Republicans argued that Democrats were in the thrall of the state's main teachers union, the Florida Education Association, and were less interested in looking out for children and parents.
"They want an option," Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said of parents in the areas affected by the program. "They don't care what it is. ... They just want education for their kids."
So far, the Senate has not adopted the "Schools of Hope" legislation, instead plowing more money into the main formula for funding public education.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Wednesday that he is sympathetic to the legislation, but said the Senate would also like to see some of its priorities considered by the House.
"I think that it's something that we want to be supportive of," Negron told reporters.
House members also approved its version of a measure (SB 376) that could lead to local school districts sharing construction dollars raised from local property taxes with charter schools. That bill was approved on a 76-38 vote.
And by a 79-38 vote, the House supported legislation (HB 7069) that would overhaul the Best and Brightest bonus program for teachers.
The proposal would lower the scores teachers would need on college-entrance exams to access the award, expand the number of tests that could be used to qualify for the bonuses and give principals an opportunity to earn additional pay by having large numbers of teachers at their schools who receive the awards.
But opponents said the changes did not go far enough.
"This was a bad idea last year," said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura. "It's a worse idea this year."
News Service of Florida