Florida lawmakers seek reduction of federal Title I, IDEA rules
For its first bill of the 2017 session, the Florida House Education Committee decided to focus on fighting federal regulations rather than on testing, recess or other matters that have dominated discussion throughout the state.
"We're going to boldly go where no man has gone before," vice chairman Rep. Bob Cortes said, riffing on the fact that the committee bill number 1701 matched the registry number of the USS Enterprise from Star Trek.
Cortes observed that the measure, a memorial urging the U.S. Congress to convert Title I and IDEA funds into block grants, would hold no force of law. It would, however, show the strong sense of Florida lawmakers that the federal government has too much influence over the way the state and school districts spend the money aimed at helping low income and special needs students.
The $772 million Florida receives in federal money, compared to its $20 billion overall education budget, "is really not justifying the level of scrutiny we're seeing," Cortes said.
He suggested that, with access to an unrestricted block grant, school districts could better tailor programs to impact student needs. PreK-12 Appropriations subcommittee chairman Rep. Manny Diaz said he viewed the idea as a way to pass money more easily to schools, allowing them more flexibility in their decisions.
The amount of local paperwork and staff to complete it could be reduced, as well, Cortes said.
Cortes also pointed to a letter the federal Education Department sent the state, indicating Florida could lose some of its Title I money because it did not fully meet federal testing requirements. The strings attached are "too extreme," he said.
"This is an important step to put it under our control," Education Committee chairman Rep. Michael Bileca said. "This is the opportunity, with the change in the Administration, and things coming out of Washington to get things closer to local control."
President Donald Trump has said he would like to rein in or close the Education Department. A bill is filed in the House of Representatives to eliminate the agency.
Democrats on the committee opposed the measure.
"I really do understand what we are trying to do," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, ranking Democrat on the committee. "I know we are in full support of the kids. ... I just think it's the wrong message to send at this point."
Cheryl Sattler, an expert on federal education funding who advises Florida school districts, said the committee recommendation raises questions, such as whether the federal government would consider block grants, "especially as under [Every Student Succeeds Act] the secretary has extremely limited waiver authority."
The committee bill faces several more steps before it could be sent to Congress.