Is the Florida House’s new school choice bill HB 7069 Part II?

The 109-page bill goes to the House Education Committee on Thursday.
Published Jan. 24, 2018|Updated Jan. 24, 2018

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran made one thing perfectly clear after the passage of the omnibus education bill HB 7069 in the spring: You ain't seen nothing yet.

"We will continue to have zero tolerance for a system that determines a child's destiny based on demographics," Corcoran intoned in his session opening remarks in January.

Exactly what he meant appeared to become clear late Tuesday, as a 109-page proposed Education Committee bill began circulating among educators and activists with an interest.

The measure, which gets its first public airing Thursday morning, includes new tax credit scholarships for third graders who don't pass their state reading exam, new powers for charter schools and their operators, and new authority for school districts to establish "autonomous" charter-like schools of their own.

It also would authorize the education commissioner to more closely coordinate school and college responses to emergencies such as hurricanes, scale back computerized state testing, revise accountability rules for private schools accepting state tax credit scholarships, and ensure access to industry certification exams for Florida Virtual School students.

Unlike HB 7069, which is under fire by school boards on several constitutional fronts, this bill comes early in the session rather than in its final days. Its title runs three pages instead of 20. And it sticks fairly closely to the issue of school choice, not veering off into dozens of often unrelated education matters.

Other potentially connected House bills already in the hopper, such as the Hope Scholarship for bullied students and the Personalized Learning pilot program, remain separate — at least for now. There isn't a Senate version floating around yet.

Still, critics of Florida's brand of education policy registered initial displeasure with the legislation, suggesting it was simply HB 7069 Part II.

"This 109 pg education omnibus bill blatantly favors privatization over traditional public schools in every category," Palm Beach schools activist Rita Solnet said via email. "By siphoning funds and resources from public schools and by saddling school districts with even more bureaucratic rules, it hurts students. Did the FL legislature forget that 88%-90% of Fls students attend public schools?"

Among the more notable features of the bill is the Reading Scholarship Account.

If approved, it would give tax credit scholarships to students who earn a Level 1 or Level 2 on the state's annual third-grade reading exam. Those students face retention unless they can show good cause allowing them to move to fourth grade.

The money would be provided first come, first served, as funding allows.

The families would be able to use the scholarship toward instructional materials, private tutoring, summer and after-school programs, therapy services and college savings.

The bill does not mention tuition for private schooling as a use. It also does not specify what tax credits would be allowed as a funding mechanism.

Another section that will gain plenty of scrutiny aims to rewrite accountability rules for private schools accepting tax credit scholarships. The current model came under fire after an Orlando Sentinel special report about problems and abuses.

The legislation would address such issues as private school owners who attempt to transfer ownership after being deemed ineligible to participate in the program, while also giving the state more authority to investigate complaints and make site visits, which have been limited in the past.

Separate bills on this subject are also moving forward in the House and Senate.

One area that might attract more parent and student interest focuses on testing.

A three-page section would require that all state reading and writing tests include materials from grade-level social studies curriculum. It also would eliminate all computerized language arts and math testing in elementary and middle schools.

Superintendents have requested such a change in recent years, suggesting that students have been tested on computer skills rather than content knowledge. They further suggested that paper exams allows schools to shorten their time spent testing, and to free their instructional technology for teacher lessons.

There's plenty to digest in the bill, and it will likely become a focal point of the Legislature's education debate moving forward, if the Senate agrees.

Senate PreK-12 Appropriations chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo said she had not read the bill yet, but had already gotten word about it.

"I was busy working on this (the budget) and I'm going to take a look at it, but again it has to go through committee and once it gets amended and the like we'll see what it does," Passidomo said. "I've heard there is a number of provisions in it and we'll take a look at it and have a conversation."

Corcoran could not be reached immediately to discuss the bill's implications, and how it fits into his chamber's session plans. Stay tuned.

— Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily Mahoney contributed.