Sen. David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican who has run the education budget in both the Florida House and Senate during his long tenure, has risen to the second-in-command post of the upper chamber.
And from his post as Senate president pro tempore, Simmons plans to continue his efforts to improve the public schools while also supporting expanded opportunities in the private education sector.
The entire state suffers when children don't get a proper education, Simmons said. "Education is key to success."
Simmons made clear his line in the sand back in 2017, when he half-heartedly presented HB 7069 for consideration on the Senate floor and then voted against it, calling it "fundamentally and fatally flawed."
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He was removed as Education Appropriations chairman soon afterward, a change that many public education advocates viewed as retribution.
But Simmons said he did not consider that to be the case, noting the move gave him the opportunity to focus on issues such as the environment while remaining dedicated to schooling matters.
"It never was a factor in what I've been able to do," Simmons said. "It is simply, as far as I am concerned, a non-event."
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Now back in a position where he can influence education policy more directly, he said he intends to do so.
"We still need to pay our teachers better, and I know we're going to work hard to improve their quality of life by working hard to ensure that teachers receive not only the respect they deserve, but also better compensation," Simmons said.
He stressed that it could be done without raising taxes.
"I hope to work to increase the number of schools that will be able to qualify for and receive the Hope Scholarship," Simmons continued.
As part of HB 7069, he pushed to have money available for some of Florida's lowest performing schools so they could provide added services, rather than just close down. It was a compromise with the House, which wanted to create a new set of charter schools to compete in those neighborhoods.
"We know a full array of assistance and wraparound programs for these underperforming schools is a significant way of changing the lives of these children," Simmons said. "I think I've always said the Hope Scholarships for these schools are an incredibly good investment. We just need to do that for each one of these underperforming schools."
He anticipated an in-depth discussion on whether school districts should be allowed to leave their property tax rates unchanged, to take advantage of rising values. The Senate has supported that position in the past, and he expected that to continue, noting that much of the gain comes from new construction while homeowners with a homestead exemption are largely protected with a 3 percent cap on their taxable value.
At the same time, Simmons called for offering more options to families and children for whom the public school system does not work. He said he's a "big supporter" of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship and Gardiner Scholarship programs, which have changed peoples' lives for the better.
"They actually have hope," he said.
But such programs deserve greater scrutiny, Simmons insisted.
"I do want to ensure there are proper qualifications, requirements and accountability," said Simmons, who has filed legislation in the past to increase oversight on some of the initiatives.
Galvano said in his news release announcing Simmons' appointment that he had a great deal of trust for his "reliable partner" in the Senate.
"We have all seen David's unmatched work ethic and tireless determination to fiercely advocate for the issues and causes he supports. However, those of us who have served with David in both the House and the Senate have also witnessed the countless occasions where he demonstrates the same tenacity and dedication when speaking up for his fellow Representatives or Senators if he feels that a colleague has been treated unfairly," Galvano said.
"I am confident David will approach the position of President Pro Tempore with a level of respect we will all admire."