Sunday, May 20, 2018
Education

Florida lawmakers boost education spending, expand online learning

TALLAHASSEE — Teachers won raises. School districts got a boost in per-pupil funding. Charter schools nearly doubled their construction and maintenance dollars.

When it came to the state budget, education was one of the session's biggest winners.

Lawmakers were also able to tweak the state's high school graduation requirements, putting new emphasis on career and technical training and heading off a potential logjam of graduates.

But the Legislature failed to pass a controversial bill that would have let parents make changes at failing schools and never acted on a proposal to give charter schools recurring revenue for capital improvements.

Here's a look at how Florida's public schools fared in this year's 60-day legislative sprint:

Budget

Lawmakers pumped more than $1 billion in new money into this year's education budget, including a $407 increase in per-pupil spending.

"We increased funding across the board to every single school district in the state of Florida," said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who chairs the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee.

The budget also included $480 million for educator pay raises, one of two top priorities for Gov. Rick Scott. Lawmakers initially wanted to tie the raises to 2013-14 student achievement data, meaning the money wouldn't be available to teachers until June 2014. But union leaders and schools superintendents pushed back, prompting lawmakers to revise the language. School systems may now develop their own plans and speed up the payout.

Charter schools, which are run by private boards, will benefit from the increase in per-pupil spending, as well as the educator pay raises. Charter schools also won $91 million for their facilities and maintenance needs — an increase of $36 million over last year.

Early learning coalitions, meanwhile, saw their budgets boosted by $5.1 million.

Two diplomas

Before the session began, Miami-Dade superintendent Alberto Carvalho warned that the state's new, more rigorous graduation requirements would prevent thousands of Florida teenagers from earning a diploma. His term for the imminent problem: "the graduation bottleneck."

The Legislature addressed the problem with SB 1076, which removes some of the requirements. It also creates two new diploma designations: one for students pursuing college-level coursework and one for students who complete industry-certification courses such as those offered by Adobe, Oracle and Microsoft.

There was early criticism from the Foundation for Florida's Future, former Gov. Jeb Bush's education nonprofit, that the bill would water down Florida's challenging curriculum. But the foundation ultimately signed off after receiving assurances that the two graduation tracks would be equally rigorous.

Scott signed the bill into law in April.

Safety

Florida lawmakers sought to tighten school security in the aftermath of December's fatal shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Conn.

A proposal to let certain teachers carry concealed weapons in classrooms made headlines, but never made it to the House or Senate floor. Efforts to let municipalities tax for school security officers, and to create a school safety trust fund from the taxes levied on gun and ammunition sales, also fell flat.

Choice

Charter school advocates were pleased with the $91 million allocation for construction and maintenance. But they were really hoping to secure a recurring revenue stream. That move failed, as did a proposal that would have required traditional public schools to share their unused space with charter schools.

The charter school bill headed to Scott's desk will hold the semi-private schools to more stringent financial standards. The schools will no longer be able to spend more than $10,000 after being closed, and won't be able to enter into employee contracts lasting longer than the school's contract with the district. High-performing charter schools, meanwhile, will be able to expand faster.

The Legislature also passed a virtual learning bill that will allow more private online education companies, some from outside Florida, to do business with Florida's public schools. It will also allow students to enroll at public virtual schools in other counties and will require the state Department of Education to create a catalog of online offerings.

Parent trigger

The Senate and House voted overwhelmingly in support of a bill that would let parents have the final say in the individualized education plans crafted for students with special needs. School districts make the final decisions under current law, though parents can file an administrative challenge.

But the issue that galvanized parents the most was the parent trigger. The bill, a priority for Bush, would let parents demand major changes at struggling public schools, including dismissing the staff or enabling a charter school management company to run the school.

Parent groups, including the Florida PTA, decried the measure as an attempt to give struggling schools to for-profit education companies. They worked aggressively to block the bill.

For the second year in a row, the parent trigger died in the Senate in a dramatic 20-20 vote.

Later, a provision of the bill that would prevent students from having unsatisfactory teachers for two years in a row was appended to another bill. Still, the defeat of the trigger handed a stinging loss to Bush and his foundation.

For parent activists, it was the capstone to a successful session.

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