A weekend interview with state Rep. John Legg, Florida House preK-12 policy committee chairman
The Florida Legislature completed its 2009 session with more failed than approved changes to public education. The budget proved the biggest stumbling block. Rep. John Legg, chairman of the House PreK-12 Policy committee and vice chairman of PreK-12 Appropriations, spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the ins and outs of the session.
Aside from the budget ... what did you see happening this session? Did it really go the way you expected, with no major legislation?
I was hopeful that we could move our standards and move some of our civics reform, move that forward. And we were disappointed that the Senate didn't take that up. We came into session knowing that it would be a hard lift to get any policy passed. We were successful in the House dealing with some of the civics, some of the science and some of the math standards. However, the Senate unfortunately didn't even bring it up for discussion. I was very disappointed in two issues. And I'm hopeful that we'll get it through next year. Because the Senate explained to us that they supported it wholeheartedly, but they did not want to discuss it. And that was eliminating the eleventh-grade FCAT requirement for science ... and replacing it with a biology/physical science end of course exam. No one objected to it. It just simply didn't happen. The second issue dealt with the civics middle school requirement as an end of course exam. We gave them several, several attempts to address that. However, because of the budget issues and the reservations to do anything new or make any changes whatsoever ... they decided not to do that.
They did do some things, though. ... Some of the changes that were made with the budget, for instance moving money from capital to general operating ...
Right. Most of the policy that was passed this year seemed to be passed in the conforming bills. Part of it was very good policy that I thought we needed during these tough fiscal times, dealing with flexibility ... Some of it was major policy shifts for the short term, specifically dealing with those capital dollars. Some of your large districts had a lot of issues dealing with bonding. ...
There were a lot of small things that I don't know would have made a lot of difference. Take Sen. Storms' bill on inspirational messages. ... It wouldn't have cost anything, except for some possibly good will. I wonder why some of those things didn't have any traction.
Some of the issues dealing with the evolution bills and the inspirational prayers ... I didn't want to bottle up time, and neither did our committee. In talking with members, it wouldn't have gone anywhere on the floor, it wouldn't have gone anywhere in the Senate. And we didn't want to spend a lot of time, at least in Pre-K-12 Policy debating the issues that had very little merit to pass or even to set up for next year. At least the Mayfield bill dealing with science standards, the McBurney bill dealing with civics and even the Fresen bill dealing with the algebra standards, those are salient dialogue policy issues that we are going to have to grapple with, whether it's this year or next year. The standards are being raised. ... Even President Obama in his March 10 speech said he wanted to do a race to the top. That question is what we wanted to spend our time with. And the inspirational message, the evolution bill, simply didn't fit in that criteria, at least for our committee.
What happened with your gifted bill?
The gifted bill was another casualty. You know, I don't know what happened to the Senate. We had some agreements that it would get passed. The staff over in the Senate from what I hear flagged it with a lot of fiscals. That spooked a lot of folks. So it never went anywhere. And I was very disappointed in that.
The charter bill, though, did pass. And last year it didn't. What was the difference between last year and this year?
We did not have a good relationship with (bill sponsor Sen. Don) Gaetz last year, as you know. And we ended the year on a sour note. Sen. Gaetz made it a priority to get along, to make sure that his charter bill passed, that there was some accountability brought in. Had an open door policy. We were able to sit down. We brought some concerns to him. He agreed they were concerns and modified his bill a little bit. ... He moved our direction on a lot of the issues. Some of the issues he didn't. ... We made it a priority to make it happen.
There were other things I was keeping an eye on. Most of them didn't go anywhere. I guess it was all because of the budget.
Yeah. The budget was the black hole that sucked the life out of all bills this year. And I can tell you the last week of session was, without a doubt, the most grueling last week of session I have ever endured. Because a lot of the issues we thought we could bring back across the finish line simply got road-blocked by budget.
For example, the one that I'm still scratching my head on why it didn't happen was Mayfield's bill dealing with end of course exams and the eleventh-grade FCAT. School districts don't like it. Teachers unions don't like it. Me, as a conservative member, I don't like it because it's basically a pointless test that kids can Christmas tree and yet schools get affected by the grading. To replace it with an end of course exam, we had bipartisan support in the House. Even Marty Kiar, one of the fiercest FCAT opponents, supported it because it moved away from the FCAT in eleventh grade and moves toward end of course exams that are meaningful. From our budget side it was revenue neutral. The Senate was scared that it wasn't and wouldn't even touch it.
What about the way the hours were written to go to a four-day week, if you wanted to. Do you think that has implications?
It has a lot of impact on a lot of areas. Specifically, charter schools, virtual schools and some districts that want to do alternative programs. While a district may not want to go district-wide for those hours, they can do pilot programs. If they have a school that for the second half of the year wants to do more hours or less hours, it gives them that flexibility to be innovative in that regard. There are some charters that want to do some dropout prevention but there are restrictions because they might not do days of the week but they might do hours ... It allows them to go to that. ... So we saw some merit. ...
There was that bill that was going to do (school board member) recall. But that got killed as well.
Same thing that hit us as two years ago, the constitutionality. ... Basically, the memos that are being floated around is that it would take a change in the constitution to do that. ...
I guess moving forward we're just going to have more budget stuff interfere, or not interfere. Things aren't as bad as we thought they would be going in. How concerned are you that we're relying on one-term money?
Well, it's two-term money. I am concerned that there's going to be a cliff two years down the road when the federal stimulus money runs out. That's kind of been the issue between the House and the Senate. We could spend this money now without any long-term plans. The House has taken a position that when we do this budget, we want to have a three-year budget. That way there is no cliff. If we have a landing, it's a soft landing at best. All the funding cycles we have come in a five-year curve, and this is year three of that curve. What our plan is, is to hold education harmless without cuts for the next two years. That also may mean without increases as well. If we can at least soften the blow over the next three years, I think that's a win. ...