Tuesday, September 25, 2018
Politics

Senator will try to defund controversial schools bill

TALLAHASSEE — A contentious, charter school-friendly education reform bill that has incensed traditional public school advocates — and given some in the Florida Senate feelings of buyers' remorse — isn't on the agenda as the Legislature meets in special session this week.

But some senators will force the issue this morning — by proposing to strip out most of the $419 million in HB 7069 and redirect the money toward increasing general spending for K-12 public schools.

Approving a boost in K-12 funding is one of the reasons lawmakers are back in Tallahassee after Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the Legislature's original spending level — an extra $24 per student — as insufficient.

The House and Senate disagree over how to pay for the $215 million it would take to increase spending by $100 per student over this year, as Scott wants. That divide threatens to blow up the special session, which would leave 4,200 public schools without billions of dollars in state funding on July 1.

The ideas now offered by Senate K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons — with support from some senators — to partially or mostly defund HB 7069 won't help ease the tension.

Although his proposals are gathering steam among some rank-and-file senators who oppose HB 7069, they're dead-on-arrival in the House.

HB 7069 — a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes — passed the Senate by just one vote last month. Simmons himself voted against it and is now trying to use the special session as a vehicle to fix what he calls "fundamentally and fatally flawed" legislation.

Several senators say they think Scott will sign it into law if he gets the economic development funding he's also seeking during the special session — meaning this could be the senators' final chance at preventing HB 7069 from becoming law in its approved form.

Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, will present at least two amendments to the Senate Appropriations Committee for consideration Thursday morning.

One would increase base K-12 spending by $215 million under the Senate's initial concept, which would require using $143 million in property tax revenue from new construction — something Corcoran has written off as "a massive tax increase."

But on top of that, Simmons wants to pull $100 million from HB 7069 and add that to the K-12 funding through a line-item specifically to help 115 perpetually failing schools identified by the Legislature.

The House's "Schools of Hope" program in HB 7069 — which aims to help students in such schools — would assist only 25 failing schools and only with a maximum of $44.5 million, an analysis by the Times/Herald found.

The remaining dollars in the $140 million pot of money for the program would go to new, specialized and privately managed charter schools that would compete with and take over those traditional neighborhood schools, even though lawmakers say that money can't possibly be all spent in a single year.

Simmons said his proposal still accomplishes the underlying goal of "Schools of Hope" — "to provide what everyone acknowledges is essential for these low-performing, high-minority schools," he said, which is money to pay for wraparound services like after-school programs.

Simmons' other idea — and the one he'll attempt first — is more drastic: Take $389 million from HB 7069 and use it to help not only the failing schools but also boost general K-12 funding by $289 million over this year. That would exceed lawmakers' new funding goal and also remove the need to use the property tax dollars that Corcoran doesn't support.

But doing so would cut all but $30 million from HB 7069 — leaving only dollars earmarked to expand the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher-like program that helps students with disabilities.

Eliminated would be all spending for "Schools of Hope," $234 million earmarked for bonuses for the state's top teachers and principals, and $15 million to implement reforms to student assessments lawmakers approved this year.

"It's one plan, and I hope it's something that can ultimately work, and if somebody has a better plan, I assure you I'm very, very happy to modify what I'm proposing or simply say, 'you have a better plan and I'll support it,'" Simmons told reporters Wednesday.

Several school district superintendents and the Florida PTA voiced support for Simmons' ideas, but the House's initial reaction isn't a receptive one.

Corcoran dismissed Simmons' ideas outright. "We're not doing it," Corcoran told the Times/Herald, noting that HB 7069 is outside the scope of the narrow agenda lawmakers can deal with in special session.

House K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said in a text message: "I don't think it's productive to try and remove funding for low-income/failing schools and hard-working teachers. The House will hold steadfast in our support of students and hard-working teachers."

Meanwhile, in the Senate, President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, wouldn't back Simmons' effort.

"He can file — and any member of the Appropriations Committee — can file amendments to the bills," he said. "That will be up to the Appropriations Committee to decide that."

But Senate Democrats, in particular, are eager to consider Simmons' ideas because they don't want HB 7069 to become law.

"This takes those monies away from 'Schools of Hope,' puts it into a meaningful turnaround program for the public schools," said Broward County Sen. Gary Farmer, a Democrat from Lighthouse Point who is among the most vocal critics of HB 7069.

"For the first time, we're going to give them those wraparound-service funds that they so desperately need," Farmer said. "Now, if those schools still struggle, then maybe we consider those other options."

He added that what's been "so offensive" about "Schools of Hope" is "it's this elixir or this great cure, but if you had given those funds to the traditional public schools in the first place, maybe we wouldn't have all of these 'D' and 'F' schools."

Farmer noted Simmons' funding concepts aren't new; the Senate attempted them during session when contemplating its own version of "Schools of Hope," which allocated resources more directly to the failing schools, not charter operators.

Meanwhile, House leaders are holding firm to its method to pay for an extra $215 million in base K-12 funding.

They want to use the money freed up from Scott's recent vetoes, because "right now, that's the money we have available," Diaz said.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark

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