TALLAHASSEE Florida lawmakers last week set into motion a budget process that will result in several highly consequential policy reforms affecting public education to become law this year in one form or another.
But if years of precedent are any indication, what exactly those final laws might be will now be determined through deal-making and negotiations that will take place largely in private, behind closed doors and out of the public eye.
The policy ideas — each tied to hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer funding — range from reforming oversight and student financial aid for the state's public colleges and universities to financially enticing privately run public charter schools to compete with failing K-12 neighborhood schools.
Citing the fact that such policies are linked to the annual budget lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass, both chambers of the Legislature made a pivotal choice on Thursday to send these substantive education bills to a conference committee. That panel of House and Senate members will be tasked with hashing out a compromise on both the policy and the funding.
Conference is a common annual process for the budget, but lawmakers in recent years have shied away, in most cases, from using it as a vehicle to pass drastic policy reforms that are otherwise amended, debated and voted on on the House and Senate floors.
By comparison to the day-to-day legislative process, conference committee proceedings typically are not transparent and are more unabashedly a display of a preordained outcome.
Leaders in the Republican-led House and Senate reject that conference committee decisions haven't been open, but at the same time, they've also pledged to make the meetings more transparent and accessible to the public this year.
"We'll have public comments in the conference committee meetings if people want to talk," Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, told reporters last week. "I would expect that bills the public has an interest in, they have every right to be there and be heard."
But some Democrats, parents and advocates of traditional public education are skeptical, given the Legislature's penchant for treating conference committee meetings more as a mandatory procedural requirement than as anything of real substance.
"When they say they're going to go into conference, the people's voice, the teacher's voice, these children's voices will not be heard. It's going to be a horse-trading session," said Sue Woltanski, a Florida Keys parent and public school advocate who blogs on education policy.
The Florida Education Association — the state's largest teachers union, with which House Speaker Richard Corcoran has feuded — is "concerned that lawmakers have leap-frogged the committee process and are dispensing with further public comments and input."
"Decisions bandied behind closed doors often become bargaining chips for leadership, and the needs of students and expert input falls by the wayside," FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow told the Times/Herald in a statement.
Typically with budget conferences, the true negotiating and meaningful debate among lawmakers occurs almost entirely in private, while the required public meetings often last only minutes with no explanation offered publicly by lawmakers of how a compromise was reached. (The committee gathers and — frequently without any genuine discussion — the top House or Senate member on the committee declares the agreement the chambers came to on a particular policy, line-item or even the full budget area itself. That's it.)
Decisions of a conference committee are essentially final; bills in conference get only an up-or-down vote on the floor and cannot be amended.
The major education policies that will go that route this year include several top priorities of Negron and Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, including:
• House Republicans' $200 million "schools of hope" plan (HB 5105) to attract specialized, high-performing charter schools to Florida to serve students who currently attend failing traditional schools.
• The House's $214 million expansion of the "Best & Brightest" teachers bonuses (HB 7069), which changes the criteria to qualify and extends the bonuses to principals. (This will be the third year that the controversial program has been approved through budget language, rather than a policy bill. It was added to the 2015-16 budget and renewed in similar fashion last year.)
• Competing ideas from both chambers (SB 376) to change the formula for how local and state capital dollars for K-12 school construction and maintenance will be disbursed among traditional and charter schools, particularly by giving charter schools a cut of local dollars they don't currently get.
• And a Senate plan (SB 374) to improve the State University System, increase student financial aid and to reform oversight and governance of Florida's 28 state colleges, including potentially setting limits on what four-year degrees the institutions can offer.
The Senate and the House have each discussed in committee their ideas for the "Best & Brightest" bonuses, the capital outlay spending reforms and the changes to higher education. Those are areas where the two chambers share overall agreement, while still differing in many of the details of their ideas.
The "schools of hope" proposal from the House is another matter.
The Senate has broadly discussed the issue of helping students in the state's lowest performing schools — but nothing remotely like the policy House Republicans laid out and approved along a party-line vote Thursday, which is now headed to conference.
The House spent more than eight hours discussing "schools of hope" in two committees and on the floor, but the upcoming conference will be the first and only discussion senators will have had on the concept. (Some senators did have a chance to discuss "schools of hope" in the Education Committee this month but didn't. Jacksonville-area Sen. Aaron Bean had proposed an amendment two weeks ago to replace his charter school bill with the House's "schools of hope" language, but the agenda was overcrowded and the bill wasn't taken up before the meeting ended.)
"The transparency of it is: Are these bills being vetted? They are," said Hialeah Republican Manny Diaz Jr., the House pre-K-12 education budget chairman. "Questions are clearly being asked, and it's going through the process. Obviously it's being negotiated in conference, and some people think that's not transparent — but it's part of the budget. It's as transparent as the budget."
Diaz added that tackling the bills this way "allows you to have conference to reach a negotiation on a like bill instead of having the typical ping-pong [between the chambers] that occurs towards the end of session. Because they're major issues, they're being given more of a chance to be negotiated out."
Negron isn't concerned that no Senate committee has discussed "schools of hope." He said the policy will still have a proper vetting — with the addition of the Senate's own ideas — in the conference meetings.
"I think the issue has been discussed sufficiently for us to consider it as part of the conference," Negron said, "and I would expect there to be some issues that, likewise, in the House may not have gone through every single committee but they are issues that have been part of the discussion."
Prior to the start of the 2017 legislative session, Corcoran — in emphasizing to the Times/Herald how he was "trying to change the culture" of the House — said, "I don't like the horse-trading stuff; that ends up in bad policy."
But "horse-trading" is exactly what appears to be happening as the session comes down to the wire.
Several senators indicated the House desired the conference committees so that their priorities (K-12 education reforms) would be factored into the budget, and senators said they agreed to that so that the Senate's priorities (higher education reforms) would be addressed in conference, too.
"Obviously, the way for us to appropriately deal with them [these education bills] is to deal with them in conference, because that's what the House has elected to do," Altamonte Springs Republican David Simmons, the Senate's pre-K-12 education budget chairman, told the Times/Herald. "So I feel comfortable that we'll be able to negotiate something ... and we will be able to reach a good resolution."
Pudlow, of the FEA, said: "We are a little surprised that the Senate agreed to this process, because traditionally they more closely adhere to a more open process and keeping the public informed."
When asked about the House's strategy in wanting to send policy bills to budget conference, House Rules & Policy chairman Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters: "It gives us an opportunity during conference to have that conversation with the other side, as well, on their bills."
Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, said he's so far withholding an opinion on whether this year's budget process will be genuinely transparent.
"I always hear the Speaker talk about how we want to have a transparency," Braynon said. "My assumption — maybe a stupid assumption — is that this would be a very transparent process, because he's part of it. So I'm going to reserve judgment until I see how this process goes."
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] or 850-222-3095. Follow @ByKristenMClark.