JACKSONVILLE BEACH, Fla. - Florida Gov. Rick Scott's stop at a Jacksonville Beach sandwich shop Tuesday afternoon was to be one of several across the state to celebrate last week's special legislative session as a win for education.
But his victory lap ran into hundreds of teachers and parents who are not happy with legislation awaiting the governor's signature and lined Beach Boulevard with signs urging him to veto House Bill 7069, which was negotiated in private by Florida House and Senate leaders last month and passed in the final hours of the regular session.
"It's going to harm our public schools and it's going to harm our children," Kenny Minchew, a Broward County teacher. "It's just a money grab for charter schools. It's not about educating the students. Charter schools aren't any better than public schools."
Scott arrived at Angie’s Subs just before 6 p.m. and was brought in through a back door to avoid interacting with the crowd, which included more than 300 teachers from across the state, who were in town for a convention but bused over to the restaurant when they learned Scott would be stopping there.
"We had record funding for K-12 education -- $100 more per student. We have $76 million more for tourists. We have $85 more jobs here. We got $50 million to fix the dike and we've already cut $180 million in taxes," Scott told a small group of supporters inside Angie's.
Rumors have begun floating that Scott will sign the 278-page bill later this week, but officially the governor maintains that he hasn't made a final decision. Scott received the bill late Monday -- he has until June 27 to sign the proposal, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
"We all want school choice," Scott said Tuesday. "We want to make sure our kids go to the best schools. ... With regard to 7069, I'm still reviewing it. I know the speaker's very passionate about it. It was something that was very important to him."
News4Jax asked Scott what specifically he would look at.
"Well, with every bill, you try to do what's best for the entire state," the governor said. "I know education is very important to our state, so I'll just keeping reviewing it."
The controversial education bill deals with everything from standardized tests to sunscreen and school uniforms. It includes a variety of measures, from requiring 20 minutes of recess for all kindergarten through fifth-grade students, to a principal and teacher bonus plan, to expanded funding for special-education students. It also significantly boosts funding for charter schools, including access for the first time to Title One federal funding, and would set state funds for charter schools to be established near public schools that are struggling academically.
"The charter schools can come in and overtake D and F schools. They can come in and open up right across the street from a public school and not pay any attention to zoning rules or laws. They don't have to follow any of that," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association. "If you're going to take that money away from the kids that need it most to give to profit charters, that's not right. We represent 2.8 million kids across the state. Charter schools represent 256,000. You do the math."
The protest lasted before and during Scott’s visit to Angie's Subs. During a quick speech inside the restaurant, the governor was asked about the controversy.
“I’m going to act in the best interest of our state. I’m very appreciative to people who teach. My daughter was a teacher. My brother was a teacher. My sister-in-law is a teacher and I want to make sure we have great teachers and I want to make sure every child has a chance to live the dream in this country," Scott said.
The legislation was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, and opponents fear that Scott agreed to sign the bill in exchange for having his priorities approved during a special session last week.
The Legislature's passage of the bill was greeted by a firestorm of protest from school boards, superintendents, the state's main teachers and other education advocates. Scott even made comments that hinted that he was considering a veto.
Critics of the bill said provisions meant to help charter schools move into neighborhoods with academically struggling schools, as well as a portion of the bill that would allow charter schools to tap local property-tax dollars for school construction, would lead to the privatization of Florida's education system. They also slammed the last-minute appearance of the legislation, which folded together a slate of education bills that had been debated separately.
"Children come from all walks of life and have different needs. We're not cookie cutters. Each child learns differently," Minchew said. "Using test scores as a way to justify charter schools is evil."
In recent weeks, though, supporters of the legislation have cranked up their efforts to promote the bill. Some conservative groups and school-choice supporters have worked to get parents of students served by choice programs involved in the fight.
They point to the proposal's more popular components, like teacher bonuses and mandatory recess for elementary students.
Backers also emphasize that, while charter schools are often operated by private groups, they are public schools that might help turn around troubled school districts.
The result has been a deluge of tens of thousands of messages for and against the bill pouring into Scott's office. As of Tuesday afternoon, the governor's office said it had received 23,440 phone calls, emails, letters or petition signatures backing the legislation. Opponents had generated 22,734 messages against it.
Opponents have dominated in phone calls and emails, while supporters of the bill seem to favor letters, perhaps because of letter-writing campaigns by schools that would be helped by the legislation.
Those who support the bill concede that they were slower than opponents to organize for the legislation.
Shawn Frost, president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, said supporters have now managed to rally parents affected by the legislation.
"What I've seen is, parents have been alerted to the fact of what it would mean to them. ... I think a big part has been educating parent groups about the truth of 7069," said Frost, whose group supports the measure.
The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative Hispanic group tied to the Koch brothers, has launched an online email drive and sent out mail pieces in English and Spanish promoting the bill. In a statement last month, the group's coalitions director, Cesar Grajales, said the bill "aims to free Florida's neediest students from this unacceptable education status-quo."
"We urge Gov. Scott to quickly sign this bill and remove unnecessary barriers to new charter schools so our students don't have to remain stuck in schools that are failing to provide a quality education," Grajales said.
Those fighting the bill question the outpouring of support, suggesting that misinformation and so-called "astroturfing" efforts might be behind some of it. They also highlight reports that some charter schools have offered extra credit or other benefits for families that sent messages of support for the bill to Scott.
"I think that what we're seeing is sort of a manufactured situation," said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now, which opposes the measure.
And opponents have not backed off. Two Democratic lawmakers issued letters Monday renewing calls for Scott to veto the bill.
"While there are small pockets of good policy hidden within this bill, it is a monstrosity when coupled with the multitude of bad policies that have been included," wrote Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale.
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