JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Florida could push ahead with a dramatic plan to shift students from chronically failing schools to charter schools run by private organizations after the Florida Legislature on Monday night approved a sweeping education bill that also makes changes to school testing and a teacher bonus program.
The legislation, which was a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, barely edged out of the Florida Senate on a 20-18 vote in which some Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the measure. Corcoran said that the changes are even more dramatic than the A+ plan put in by former Gov. Jeb Bush nearly two decades ago that created the state's first voucher program and the state's current school grading system.
"It is the greatest public school bill in the history of Florida," Corcoran said after the bill was sent to Gov. Rick Scott.
The Senate vote came after intense debate in which opponents contended the legislation was a giveaway to charter schools, which are public schools that are run by private organizations and sometimes managed by for-profit companies. Even Republicans who voted for it said they weren’t completely happy with the House-dictated measure.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, told the Orlando Sentinel that the 20-subject bill needed far more time for discussion and debate.
“I can assure you, we’ll be back to fix it,” he said. “We’re going to have to fix it, this fall and next year.”
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale, called the bill a “piece of junk” and a “monstrosity.” He said the bill will hurt traditional public schools and hasten the privatization of education.
“We know it's bad public policy, but here we are in basically a take-it-or-leave-it situation,” Farmer said.
Scott, who has feuded with Republican legislators during this year's annual session, has not said if he would sign off on the major proposal. The bill (HB 7069) is tied to the overall state budget. Scott has hinted he may veto the budget because lawmakers have not gone along with some of his top priorities.
The nearly 300-page bill includes a long list of education changes that legislators had been considering. But the final bill was negotiated largely in private and was not seen by the public until last week.
Some of the final changes drew the ire of the state's teacher unions and parent groups as well as superintendents of some of Florida's largest school districts.
Duval County School Board members, Superintendent Nikolai Vitti and the president of the teachers' union called a news conference Monday morning to denounce the bill.
"Not only are we underfunded for infrastructure, but we will see less funding and an acceleration of funding to charter schools," Vitti said. "This "reform" is -- I call it reform because that's what the Legislature is calling it -- it's not reform. It's hijacking of the legislative process to favor charter schools. In other words, to favor the few over the many."
The legislation was unveiled after 4 p.m. on the next-to-last business day of the session, and it settled most of the major education issues that confronted lawmakers during their time in Tallahassee this spring. Because it is a budget reconciliation bill, there could be no amendments.
"I have a doctorate from Harvard. We have staff that is highly educated (and) it took us almost two days to go through this bill, and we still haven't uncovered every element of this bill," Vitti said. "We worked day and night over the weekend."
Vitti's staff said the bill will affect how millage funding is allocated without voter approval or input, eliminate some Title I initiatives within the district and accelerate the conversion or closure of lower-performing schools.
"They were playing politics on the backs of our children," Duval Teachers United President Terrie Brady said. "Ask governor to veto HB 7069."
The St. Johns County Chamber sent an alert to its members asking that they contact their lawmakers before 2:30 p.m., when the Legislature was expected go into session on the bill that "endangers our children's education and our County’s number 1 ranking."
St. Johns County School Superintendent Tim Forson also spoke out against the school funding bill.
"This budget is not one filled with hope and promise for our students," Forson said. "This budget hurts your children and our schools by decreasing the funds that create programs for students and the funds that compensate teachers for their hard work."
Another major part of the bill creates the "Schools of Hope" program that would offer financial incentives to charter school operators who would agree to take students who are now attending chronically failing schools, many of them in poor areas and urban neighborhoods. Additionally, up to 25 failing public schools may receive up to $2,000 per student for additional student services.
It also expands the "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus program, and designate September as "American Founders' Month."
Vitti said the changes will result in less accountability for charter schools because they won't be monitored as heavily as they are now.
The bill also forces public schools to shut down after three consecutive school grades under a C, a first-time F or two Ds. Under current law, Florida schools are given three years to turn around failing schools, but this bill would take a year off that timeline.
In Duval County, more than 20 schools -- including Ribault, Matthew Gilbert and Northwestern Middle schools -- are in danger of closing if they don't get a grade of C or higher this year. School grades usually come out in July.
"As a former City Council member, I know how closing schools will impact our communities," board member Warren Jones said.
Included in the bill is a requirement that elementary schools must set aside 20 minutes each day for "free-play recess," although at the last minute charter schools were exempted from the mandate. The bill includes more than $200 million for teacher and principal bonuses.
Bowing to criticism about Florida's testing regimen, the measure eliminates the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam and pushes back the date in the school year when students must take Florida's main standardized test.
The House approved the bill 73-36, while the Senate narrowly approved the measure by a 20-18 vote.
The bill now heads to Scott. If he were to veto the bill, the Legislature would need to return for a special session before the new budget year begins July 1.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.