House education choice bill expands to nearly 200 pages

Critics raise concerns over the number of items combined into a single piece of legislation.
The Florida House Education Committee discusses a proposed committee bill on school choice issues on Jan. 25, 2018. [The Florida Channel]
The Florida House Education Committee discusses a proposed committee bill on school choice issues on Jan. 25, 2018. [The Florida Channel]
Published Jan. 29, 2018|Updated Jan. 29, 2018

A proposed House Education Committee bill that focused largely on school choice issues has nearly doubled in size between its Thursday hearing and its next stop at the Appropriations Committee.

With its latest proposed committee substitute, HB 7055 is now poised to become the House's primary education legislation. Up to 198 pages from its original 109, it would encompass a variety of issues including funding for tax credit scholarships for bullied students, requirements for teacher union certification and establishment of "Medal of Honor Day."

The bill would also require school board members to get advance approval for out-of-state travel; bar appointed superintendents from lobbying their districts up to two years after leaving their post; and  authorize the state Office of Inspector General to investigate any allegations of fraud or abuse by a school district made by a Cabinet officer, certain lawmakers or board members, among other things.

The inclusion of a wide variety of topics has boosted the bill's title to just over 11 pages. House leaders are taking pains to avoid criticisms lobbed at HB 7069, the nearly 300-page bill it passed in the spring, by ensuring that the items in HB 7055 have been or are scheduled to be heard by committees well in advance of the session's waning hours.

That effort has done little to mollify concerns among watchers who worry another train bill will include items aimed at winning votes that, if each were taken up individually, they might not win.

One of those could be the union certification piece, which did not make its way through the Senate a year ago. Initially directed at all unions except police, firefighters and corrections officers, it would focus solely on teachers in this version.

"It's simply an attack on our union pretty specifically," said Stephanie Baxter-Jenkins, Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association executive director. "The teacher's union has been very vocal in some of the horrific things they have done to public education in the last several years, and I think this is clearly retribution for vocally opposing the selling off of public schools."

Several school boards already are suing the Legislature over HB 7069, contending it was unconstitutional because it did not stick to a single subject.

Monroe County activist Sue Woltanski, who has spoken at several recent education committee and subcommittee sessions, pointed out on Facebook that "the House Ed Committee did not meet between 10/10/17 and 1/18/18… time that could have been spent discussing the components of this legislation."

With the inclusion of several House priorities, HB 7055 is expected to become a bargaining chip in funding and policy discussions with the Senate, which does not have a direct piece of companion legislation. The Senate Education Committee meets at 4 p.m. today.

— Tallahassee bureau reporter Emily Mahoney contributed.