Constitution Revision Commission advances bundled education proposal to November ballot

An effort to unbundle the three ideas fails 13-22.
Coral Gables attorney Roberto Martinez advocates for the unbundling of several proposals before the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission on April 16, 2018. [The Florida Channel]
Coral Gables attorney Roberto Martinez advocates for the unbundling of several proposals before the Florida Constitutional Revision Commission on April 16, 2018. [The Florida Channel]
Published April 16, 2018|Updated April 16, 2018

Despite calls to treat each idea separately, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission has sent a proposal to voters that would set school board member term limits, require civic education in public schools, and allow for the creation of a state charter school authorizer.

Commission member Roberto Martinez, a former State Board of Education chairman and key legal adviser to Jeb Bush, pressed the panel Monday to unbundle the package [P 6003].

The portion to give control of some public schools to an entity other than a local school board would be a "game changer" that would radically alter public education governance, Martinez argued. Voters should have a clear understanding of the proposal and then decide on its own merits — not because it's tied to another concept, he said.

"These are three separate issues," former state senator Chris Smith said in agreement. "I don't even realize how I'm going to vote. I'm strong on some of it. I'm against some of it."

The opposition reflected a growing drumbeat across Florida, where several organizations have raised concerns about the "power grab" they suggested Republican government leaders are attempting. They had a coordinated campaign in newspapers over the weekend, signaling this could likely be a most challenged ballot item, and wrote a letter to CRC chairman Carlos Beruff asking for each proposal to be taken up independently.

Beruff was among the 22 members to vote against unbundling the proposals, and among the 27 to support placing the package on the November ballot. A proposal needed 22 votes to advance.

Unlike those who suggested the measure would decimate local control of public education, supporters of the initiative said the ideas "absolutely" belong together because they are all part of Article IX.

They contended it would unshackle the Legislature in any future efforts to come up with new ideas to improve the system.

The current constitutional language of Article IX authorizes local school boards to operate, supervise and control all free public schools within their jurisdiction. The amendment would limit that authority to the schools "established by the district school board."

That has been read by many observers as a method to allow creation of an unelected state charter school approval system, which in the past has been rejected in court because of this section of the constitution.

Commission member Patricia Levesque, who heads Jeb Bush's education foundation, argued that a state charter authorizer is not spelled out in the proposal. Rather, Levesque said, the idea is to upgrade 50-year-old language written when Florida's population was less than half of what it is now.

Floridians did not contemplate charter schools, online education, dual enrollment or other ideas that have emerged since. Levesque contended that new concepts face political hurdles because of the constitution, and called for the change.

Commission member Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member and charter school founder, said the constitution needs to be forward looking.

"When these reforms run their course, will [lawmakers] be able to respond?" asked Donalds, who is attempting to open charter schools outside Collier County.

The time has come, she suggested, to get rid of the "unfair, antiquated" wording that is used to "protect the education monopoly," and to give parents more opportunities for school choice.

"It is our duty to take the hogtie off the Legislature," said Donalds, whose husband serves in the state House and recently sponsored a measure to create a private school scholarship for students who claim to be bullied in public school.

Commission member Frank Kruppenbacher, a longtime lawyer for district and charter schools, rejected that the Legislature cannot make any education reforms it wishes.

"What it needs is the leadership to do it," he said, noting all the initiatives that have been implemented over the years.

Kruppenbacher was among the 10 members to vote against the proposal. The others were Martinez, former Florida Bar president Hank Coxe, state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, State Board of Education members Tom Grady and Marva Johnson, former state Sen. Arthenia Joyner, state Sen. Darryl Rouson, Indian River County Commissioner Bob Solari, and Florida education commissioner Pam Stewart.

The ballot measure would require 60 percent voter approval to become effective.

One other education proposal, which would allow high-performing school districts to avoid certain portions of the state education code similar to charter schools, is to be considered separately. Commission Style and Drafting chairman Brecht Heuchan explained that the fourth proposal could not fit with the others and meet the wording limitations for amendments.

UPDATE: The "innovation school districts" proposal failed 13-23.