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Florida Senate committee tackles mental health, charter schools and “Schools of Hope”

Members and viewers praise the bipartisan effort.

While House Democrats continued to blast Republican efforts to recast Florida education policy, Democrats in the Senate found common ground with the opposite party Wednesday on some similar issues.

GOP leaders on the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee accepted several Democrat amendments to chairwoman Kathleen Passidomo's priority bill, SB 1434, which aims to refine and revise some of the charter school provisions created in last year's contentious House-generated education omnibus bill, HB 7069.

Passidomo initially intended her bill to focus on mental health services in the schools. It includes language and funding to "assist school districts in establishing or expanding comprehensive school-based mental health programs."

It goes well beyond that, promoting new rules for public "Schools of Hope" funds, charter school operations, tax credit scholarship eligibility and more.

It also includes differing approaches to some House ideas, such as operation of district schools in turnaround status. The Senate, for instance, would create a "franchise model" for a principal to run several schools, while the House has promoted an autonomy model that would more clearly take the schools out of the School Board's realm.

Members offered several amendments, focusing on issues such as charter school ownership and hurricane hardening. Every amendment won approval, and was added to the committee substitute that advanced on a unanimous vote.

Marie-Claire Leman of the parent group Common Ground applauded the panel for its collegial approach, and encouraged members to stand firm in the face of likely opposition.

Sen. Gary Farmer, a Fort Lauderdale Democrat, thanked Passidomo for her leadership and open door.

"Thank you for being very open minded," Farmer said. "Last year, the process was, you know, not to everyone's liking. … This is what the Senate should be all about. I hope we make a strong statement as the Florida Senate that this is what good education policy looks like, and this is what good procedure looks like."

Passidomo joined in the cheer.

"This was a crazy day. There were amendments flying as much as two seconds before we started," she said. "I kind of like it. It gives everyone the opportunity to weigh in on something that is significant. And it looks like it's bipartisan, because we all agree on where we want to end up."

The bill does not have a direct companion in the House, although it has several counterparts that include similar concepts. SB 1434 has one more committee stop before heading to the Senate floor.