Several high-profile education bills keep moving in Florida Legislature

The measures relate to teacher testing, career education and charter school authorization.
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, asks the House Education Committee on April 3, 2019, to support his bill changing teacher certification testing requirements. [The Florida Channel]
Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, asks the House Education Committee on April 3, 2019, to support his bill changing teacher certification testing requirements. [The Florida Channel]
Published April 3, 2019|Updated April 3, 2019

A bill to ease the testing requirements attached to teacher certification easily won unanimous support in the Florida House Education Committee on Wednesday, with few questions raised and little debate of substance.

The bill’s sponsor, Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds, did not offer any amendments to HB 7061, despite suggestions at a previous committee stop that he planned to revise sections to deal with needs specific to career and technical educators coming from the world of work into schools. Donalds also made no mention of concerns raised by observers including former education commissioner Pam Stewart and longtime Jeb Bush education adviser Patricia Levesque that creating a waiver to the general knowledge test requirement could diminish state expectations of teachers.

Related: With teachers in short supply, should Florida make it easier for them to get the job?

Instead, members cheered the idea of finding a way to help would-be teachers who struggle with the test, saying it would in turn aid schools that have trouble finding qualified applicants to fill all their vacancies. The state faces a projected 10,000 teacher shortfall in the coming academic year.

“This bill is in direct response to so many meetings you’ve had with teachers,” committee chairwoman Rep. Jennifer Sullivan told the panel, as it prepared to vote. “I’m really excited about the mentorship pathways that I think will lead to even stronger teachers.”

Representatives from the Florida school administrators association, the Department of Education, the Orange County school district and the Florida PTA all offered support for the proposal, which next heads to the House floor.

A similarly short discussion took place as the committee took up HB 7071, a career-technical education proposal that included ideas from two bills merged into one (the other was HB 7055).

The new, longer measure calls for several ideas that Gov. Ron DeSantis has called for, including an expansion of apprenticeship programs, added career planning support for students, and the offer to replace a science graduation credit with a computer science course.

The bill also speaks to creating a different path to a high school diploma for students in a career-technical program.

Bill sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo, a Citrus County Republican, said lawmakers and staff worked to be “as pragmatic as possible” in stitching together the bill in such a way that it would encourage schools to promote technical education while also retaining the needed academic rigor for students.

It, too, passed the committee unanimously on the way to the floor.

Related: House panel makes quick work of ‘alternate pathways’ to graduation bill

A day earlier, the House Appropriations Committee advanced legislation (HB 1197) aimed at doing what the Constitution Revision Commission tried to accomplish in the fall.

The measure would take steps toward permitting charter school authorizers other than school districts, which currently hold the sole right to approve charters. This bill would add public colleges and universities to the list, if they choose to do so.

The reception for this bill was far less collegial. Democrats on the committee struggled to understand why the colleges and universities would need to be involved in this process, particularly if they are not even responsible for the creation and planning of the charter school as an offshoot of their educational programs.

“Why is this needed?” Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando, asked several times.

He noted school districts already have systems in place to accomplish this task, and the State Board of Education “is already a rubber stamp” for those who appeal a district-level denial.

“It is the school board’s business what happens at public charter schools,” Smith said. “Circumventing that business is, I think, a problem.”

Sponsor Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, suggested that some school districts work well with charters, but others do not, and the applicants deserve options. He also said the idea of “vertical integration” of education, from preschool through postgraduate work, makes sense, and this idea would support such initiatives.

Still, Fischer offered to work with those lawmakers who had specific questions to see if he could modify the measure as it heads to the Education Committee.

Related: Proposal to allow a state charter school authorizer advances in Florida Constitution Revision Commission

Several other less notable education bills also continue to advance, including HB 225 requiring school districts to allow authorized students to wear military dress uniforms at high school graduations; SB 66 mandating school districts to add filters to certain drinking water sources; and HB 257 changing the rules when universities may add a tuition surcharge to Florida resident students.

Many other bills, by contrast, have hit a wall as their next committees of reference have announced they no longer plan to meet. Committees have met since late fall, and session is scheduled to end May 3.