TALLAHASSEE — A flurry of legal questions on top of an already ambitious education agenda has helped persuade Florida Gov. Rick Scott to back away from a controversial plan for universal school vouchers.
Instead of creating new ways to send students from public to private school, Scott will push lawmakers this year to increase the number of charter schools.
"That's my focus right now," he said.
Scott also wants more students taking online classes in virtual schools; to expand eligibility for existing voucher programs; and to make it easier for school districts to fire poor-performing teachers.
To help push that agenda, Scott enlisted the help Wednesday of controversial education expert Michelle Rhee.
Welcomed as a "movie star" to the state Senate's top public schools committee, Rhee encouraged lawmakers to abolish teacher tenure, fire the worst 8 percent of teachers and then watch student achievement soar.
"As long as we have practices in place that protect ineffective teachers, we are not going to be able to move student achievement," Rhee said.
Scott had wanted to create a new voucher program to allow state education dollars to follow a student to the school his or her parents choose. But supporters and opponents of that plan cautioned that Scott would probably need a constitutional amendment to push that through.
Scott's advisers have cautioned that expanding charters and abolishing teacher tenure could invite lawsuits as well. "We have a lot of choice now," Scott said.
In the Senate pre-K-12 Committee on Wednesday, Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, asked Rhee why Florida needed an overhaul of its public school system by pointing to a report from Education Week, which recently ranked Florida as the No. 5 education system in the country.
"How can we be such an inept public school system and rank so high?" Montford said.
Rhee suggested the ranking showed more changes were needed. "No. 5 in this nation?" Rhee replied. "This nation is not where we need to be in the global marketplace."
The Pre-K-12 Education Committee is scheduled to take its first vote today on a bill (SB 736) that would eliminate teacher tenure. Lawmakers approved a similar bill last year (SB 6), but then-Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed it after a swell of public protests.
"We still have some problems with it," said Mark Pudlow, a spokesman for the Florida Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state. "This just lets teachers be fired without just cause or due process."
Rhee spent 31/2 years as the Washington, D.C., schools chancellor. She fired about 1,000 teachers during that time, including 75 that an arbitrator ordered Monday to be rehired because they were improperly dismissed.
Last year, she was featured in Waiting for Superman, a documentary by the makers of An Inconvenient Truth that followed five students stuck in failing public schools, including one in Washington.
Rhee is now attempting to raise $1 billion through her foundation, Students First, to take on teachers unions and dismantle tenure laws across the country.
Rhee's controversies in Washington contributed to D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's failed re-election bid, but her new-found celebrity in education circles has made her a darling of Republicans looking to battle with teachers unions.
Rhee, who is an informal adviser for Scott, pushed lawmakers to loosen restrictions on charter schools.
She referenced a situation in Marco Island, where she said the school district was "throwing up roadblocks" for parents who want to create a charter school.
"The approval process to open a charter school should be rigorous," Rhee told lawmakers. "But the districts, some of which do not want the competition, should not get to hold all the cards."
Rhee suggested lawmakers loosen laws to let parents or teachers demand districts convert public schools into charters.
"The competition this creates makes the entire system better," Rhee said.
About 155,000 of Florida's 2.6 million public school students are in charter schools.
Of the 274 charter schools graded this year, 71 percent received an A or B. The average of all public schools is 74 percent.
Patricia Levesque, who led Scott's transition team on education issues, said she is working on a bill to expand charter school options.
A draft of her proposal would loosen restrictions on companies looking to open charter schools in multiple counties; let colleges and universities open new charters; expand enrollment at high-performing charter schools; and let some charter schools participate in the state's pre-K program.
Levesque is also pushing to expand the eligibility for McKay Scholarship vouchers, which pay to send students with special needs to private school.
Scott's education policy chief, Scott Kittel, said the governor will push to expand eligibility in so-called Opportunity Scholarships.
About 1,400 students use those vouchers, which let students transfer out of failing public schools. Students in 14 schools are eligible for the vouchers this year and Scott's plan would increase it by possibly dozens more.
Michael C. Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.