Peace in Tallahassee comes at a high price. Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders announced Friday they have agreed to spend more money on public schools, promote tourism and rework the governor's pet job incentives program. But the cost of this detente is too steep, with the governor poised to allow horrendous legislation to become law that would further dismantle public education.
Everyone sounded like a winner at Friday's news conference announcing another deal privately negotiated by a handful of the powerful and sprung upon the rest of the 160 legislators. The governor is happy because legislative leaders agreed to spend more on tourism and embrace reworked economic incentives, his top priorities. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, is thrilled because he will add increased spending on public schools to his checklist that includes money for a new South Florida reservoir and higher education. But House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, apparently won the biggest prize even though Scott avoided publicly confirming it: The governor's promise not to veto HB 7069, a monstrosity of more than 50 bills packaged together in secret that micromanages public school districts and favors privately run charter schools. Hold the applause.
On the surface, there is plenty to like about this peace accord. Scott signed into law the $82 billion state budget for 2017-18 after lawmakers agreed to spend another $215 million or so on public schools during a three-day special session set for next week. The public schools budget rejected by Scott offered a pitiful per student spending increase of $24, or less than one-half of 1 percent. The new money should get that increase up to $100 per student, which is particularly welcome in a state that lags well below the national average.
Legislative leaders also agreed to restore spending to the current level of $76 million to Visit Florida, the state's tourism arm, after Corcoran exposed wasteful spending and insisted on slashing its budget during the regular session. They held fast on Corcoran's refusal to spend millions on corporate welfare masquerading as job incentives through Enterprise Florida. But they appeased Scott with a promising new program that would allocate $85 million to infrastructure and workforce training programs to help create more jobs. Details remain sketchy, but the framework appears attractive.
Yet all of this additional spending is not worth the damage that would be caused by the education legislation that Corcoran covets and Scott evidently agreed to spare. It allocates $140 million to Corcoran's "Schools of Hope" initiative, a power play that would give state loans for construction and state money to pay salaries and overhead for charter schools to take over for failing public schools. For the first time, school districts also would be forced to share with charter schools local property tax money for capital projects. School district superintendents would face new restrictions on shifting federal Title 1 money among high-poverty schools to the ones that need the most help. And that doesn't begin to describe the micromanaging in this legislative train wreck, from limiting testing windows to requiring tests on paper rather than computers to dictating 20 minutes of recess a day in elementary schools (but not in charter schools, of course).
The upshot: Hillsborough County will have even less money to fix its broken school air conditioners. Pasco County will have less money to build new schools it needs to accommodate growth. Pinellas County will have a harder time finding money to fulfill its commitment to improve failing elementary schools in south St. Petersburg, making it even easier for Corcoran's charter school scheme to take root.
True to form, Corcoran traded cash for fundamental policy change. Anyone who cares about the future of public education should not be so easily bought off.