The key education issues for the 2018 legislative session

The Legislature begins its annual session on Tuesday, and it’s Gov. Rick Scott’s final year. The sexual harassment scandal has shaken the ground beneath Monroe Street, unsettling the status quo as much as the shifting power dynamics of politicians looking ahead to their next office. To help you sort through the key issues, we bring you “For A Better Florida,” the Tampa Bay Times preview of the session. Published every year since 1951, it presents news articles and opinions intended to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state.
Published Jan. 5, 2018

Every year, education policy tends to jump to the top of Florida's legislative priority list — even after lawmakers vow to take a break from it. The topic can get emotional.

Last spring, the massive education bill known as HB 7069 ground the Legislature to a near halt, and Gov. Rick Scott vetoed the K-12 education budget, triggering a special session.

Past sessions saw heated debates over Jeb Bush's A-Plus accountability plan, Charlie Crist's veto of SB 6 to end teacher continuing contracts and Scott's approval of SB 736, which changed the way teachers are evaluated and paid.

Education seems to always be on Florida's front burner. Will the same hold true in 2018?

To quote the venerable Magic 8 Ball, signs point to yes.

Unfinished business

In the aftermath of HB 7069's narrow Senate passage, some critics promised to revisit the lengthy measure with a goal of "fixing" it in 2018.
House leaders, including education appropriations chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, made clear early on that the welcome mat won't be out for amending the law. It hasn't been in place long enough to know if it works, Diaz has said.

But some senators have questioned one particular section, which limits the choices districts have when turning around schools with poor state test results.

In a recent committee meeting, Department of Education officials stated that 38 schools could be shut down, turned over to third-party operators or converted to charters if they do not score above a D in state grading this spring. HB 7069 deleted a fourth option known as a district-managed turnaround.

Some have likened the possible outcome to a train wreck that will harm the children. Some proposed fixes could be in the offing, which could drag these already contentious issues back into the spotlight.

On another front, a Senate plan to overhaul higher education lives on after Scott vetoed it last year. The plan, which would permanently expand the Bright Futures scholarship and boost recruitment and retention of faculty, appears on a fast track for the new session.

SB 4 easily cleared three committees, and is already scheduled for floor action when the Legislature convenes.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran — who has wielded significant control over the Tallahassee agenda — has indicated his backing, telling Politico Florida he and Senate President Joe Negron "share the same educational philosophy from pre-K to Ph.D."

More choices

The 2017 session illustrated that Corcoran's support comes with expectations. This time around, that tradeoff appears to be SB 4 for HB 1, which Corcoran and his top lieutenants made a show of promoting in the fall.

HB 1 would provide tax-credit funded vouchers called "Hope Scholarships" to public school students who report being victims of violence or bullying on campus. They could use the funds toward private school tuition or a smaller amount for transportation to a different public school.

The concept has generated criticism, including among Republicans, who have asked why the state would pay to remove victims from school rather than tackle the bullying. Some have decried the concept as demonizing traditional public schools.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said it's all about providing options to families who feel trapped. He said he's willing to work to improve the measure, one of several that would further grow choice programs.

In a show of reciprocity, Senate president-designate Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton and the sponsor of SB 4, has filed an identical version of HB 1 in the Senate.

In the news

Often, Florida's education bills stem from the battles over accountability, choice and privatization. Other times, they arise from the news of the day.

In the aftermath of last year's hurricanes, questions arose over which schools should be available as emergency shelters. So Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, filed a measure (HB 779) specifying that schools receiving state capital funds would be on that list.

After Floridians approved the use of medical marijuana, some raised concerns about how schools would handle the drug on their campuses. So Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, proposed a bill (SB 986) setting forth some guidelines and rules.

And when white nationalist Richard Spencer scheduled an appearance at the University of Florida, it raised issues of free speech. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, and Rep. Bob Rommel, R-Naples, have submitted the "Campus Free Expression Act" (SB 1234 / HB 909), which seeks to clarify the law regarding "expressive activities" on public college campuses.

Once more, with feeling

Some issues keep coming back in the hope they will some day break through the opposition.

Sometimes such repeat performances yield a win, such as the years-long battle for bullying protection in schools, now called the Jeffrey Johnston Act. Sometimes, they just fade away.

This year's returns include a financial literacy graduation requirement (SB 88 / HB 323, fifth year), an effort to expand computer coding instruction (SB 180, fourth year), and a proposal to allow certain school employees to carry guns at school (SB 1236 / HB 631, sixth year).

Which ones will make it through is anyone's guess. But as lawmakers descend on Tallahassee, we know one thing for sure: Education will be in the mix.