Surrounded by top Republican lawmakers and students, Gov. Rick Scott signed the Legislature's two sweeping education bills reforming K-12 and higher education on Sunday that included a provision to strip the University of South Florida St. Petersburg of its accreditation.
"This is an outstanding year for education," Scott said in his office, where the signing took place. "This is my last session of eight sessions, so we have had eight sessions where I've been focused on trying to make sure this is the place where a child can get a great education."
HB 7055 creates a new voucher for students who are bullied that will pay for private school tuition, a scholarship for kids who fail reading tests to pay for tutors and allows for millions to be directed from sales tax to fund vouchers. It also requires teachers' unions to now have 50 percent of all teachers who are eligible to be union members pay dues, or risk being decertified.
SB 4 significantly and permanently expands the Bright Futures scholarship program for high-achieving college students and outlaws so-called "free speech zones" on college campuses.
It also eliminates USF-St. Petersburg's autonomy by merging all of USF's campuses, including a campus in Sarasota-Manatee, into one system. Sponsored by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, the move to strip USF-St. Pete's separate accreditation was touted as a move toward getting all campuses under the "preeminent" status that USF is expected to achieve this year.
Preeminent status is a category of increased state funding and prestige, based on metrics like graduation rates, designed to attract better faculty and better programs.
But it blind-sided civic and business leaders, including Democratic St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who fear the return of the austere days when the campus wasn't independent and its officials had to beg for funding from Tampa administrators.
"The mayor is not surprised by this disappointing bill," said Kriseman's spokesman, Ben Kirby. "This thing was cooked up a long time ago in secret by (USF President Judy Genshaft) and her Republican allies in the Legislature."
Throughout the session, which spilled over its regular 60-day period into Sunday, the House and Senate have made clear that both education bills were among their top priorities. The Senate finally passed HB 7055 and the House passed SB 4 within 10 minutes of each other last week, possibly signifying each chamber was waiting for the other to follow through on its bill in a Legislative game of "chicken."
Just before the bills were signed, House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, said he and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, agreed before they both took their leadership roles that education would be their focus.
He also spoke in support of the union rule change, saying it would bring more fairness to union representation. Because Florida is a “right-to-work state,” members of unions generally are not required by the state to pay dues, but this bill would impose that requirement for teachers’ unions.
"The reality is nobody should be forced to be led when the majority of the people you're leading don't want to be there," Corcoran said. "It's inconceivable you would have an organized union that wouldn't have the support of 50 percent of its people. … It's un-American."
Americans for Prosperity, the activist arm for the billionaire Charles and David Koch brothers, has been one of the chief supporters of the union rules, dubbed "union-busting" by some, lobbying for the bill at virtually all of its committee stops. The group has also been mailing out advertisements supporting this bill and Corcoran, who is considering a run for governor this year.
Meanwhile, teachers' unions have condemned the measures since the beginning of the session as a targeted attack. Joanne McCall, president of the statewide teachers' union the Florida Education Association, called the union rules "pure politics" on Sunday.
Teachers' unions are often a key constituency group for Democrats, who largely disagree with using public funds for vouchers.
"I just find it very disheartening," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers' union. "We'll do what we need to do and go after it in the election cycle … and hopefully change some of the faces in Tallahassee."
Reactions from the higher education community were less divided.
Florida State University President John Thrasher, who was present for the bill signing, said it was a good day for higher education. He had previously expressed concerns over the free speech language, which would allow people who felt their rights were violated during university-hosted events to sue.
But that language was watered down in the final version Scott signed, taking out minimum financial penalties and clarifying only universities would be on the hook, not students or faculty who "materially disrupt" events.
"We worked with the Legislature on both sides and we're very comfortable with it," Thrasher said. "I think we ended up with a good bill so I'm very proud of it and I think the students will benefit from that."