Proposals to ask voters in November to expand vouchers and school choice were given a predicted green light Friday as a key committee of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission moved forward in what is a top priority of Florida's Republican leaders.
The biggest school choice victory of the day was the unanimous vote of the Education Committee to advance a proposition removing the "Blaine Amendment" language from Florida's Constitution, which the Florida Supreme Court has said is the obstacle to allowing public funds to pay for vouchers at religiously affiliated schools.
But one proposal defied the foreseen tide of school choice measures and came from an unlikely champion: Miami lawyer Roberto Martinez, an early advocate for school choice in Florida as a long-time member of the Florida Board of Education under former Gov. Jeb Bush.
His proposal aims to grant high-performing district schools the ability to become "charter districts," and therefore better compete with charter schools, which have much less state regulation and more autonomy.
"This is a logical progression for innovation and school choice but on a much larger scale," Martinez told the committee. He said that two of his three children went to private schools in Miami-Dade and one went to public schools and "if I were to do it all over again, I would put all the kids in the public school system."
The amendment, known as Proposal 93, would "give school boards that have demonstrated a record of competence … the flexibility to innovate and try certain programs that are more responsive to their children," he said.
The idea is the brainchild of Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, whom Martinez said he approached for ideas when he was appointed to the panel. The 37-member CRC has the power to put proposals directly before voters on the November ballot and removing barriers to private school vouchers and expanding school choice is a top priority of Gov. Rick Scott, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, who appointed the commissioners.
Carvalho appeared before the commission to make his pitch via a recorded presentation and then answered commissioners' questions by phone.
Under the concept, the eligible districts must maintain a grade of B or better for at least two years within a three-year period and its financial reserves must not fall below the state required minimum, he said.
The elected school board would remaining the governing entity of the charter district but the district would be given all the same exemptions from state regulations that private charter schools currently get, Carvalho said, "thus allowing for broad-based innovation and flexibility when supported by consistent, outstanding student outcomes."
He said school districts might want flexibility with alternative curriculum, instructional time, and the school calendar and more options in what credentials are accepted for principals and assistant principals and how they handle purchases and contracts. He said many districts would welcome more flexibility in how they build and maintain schools because current laws often "force us to build schools at a premium" and there is often a "more cost-effective way."
Carvalho said he didn't know if Miami-Dade or other schools districts would choose to become a "charter district" but local communities should at least have the choice.
The same concept has also surfaced as part of an omnibus House Education Committee bill which was publicly heard for the first time Thursday. During that committee meeting, Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said it was time for districts to be able to hold their own without the state impeding their innovation.
"Something early on what I was hearing when I was meeting with districts that I would hear over and over is, 'Just let us have a level playing field,' " he said.
Even the Democratic members of the committee, traditionally opposed to public funds being used for voucher programs, said it was time to embrace the school choice movement but turn the focus to accountability for those schools that receive state dollars.
"I'm not getting into the public versus charter school thing, I think we've moved past that," said Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. "I think we've all seen things differently and if we all come to the table we can all get where we're trying to go."
The CRC committee debated over the merit of having this arguably radical, new idea inserted into the Constitution, rather than let the House pass it as a law.
Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a member of the CRC, suggested the issue was better suited to be handled by the Legislature.
"The question that I have is is there legislative will," Martinez responded. "I don't mean any disrespect to you but it's very difficult for individual citizens of Florida to actually be heard in the Legislature. It's very difficult to lobby and be actively involved in a powerful way."
Instead, he said, he wanted to capitalize on the unique CRC process allows voters every 20 years to establish a citizens committee that can put proposals before voters than can shape the state's future.
Sprowls' sentiment was echoed by others and Martinez's proposal appeared doomed until Martinez made a last-minute Hail Mary, convincing the committee to keep it moving forward to force the hand of the Legislature.
"The legislative session ends in March and we end in late April, early May. Maybe the thing to do is to keep this alive," he said. "The Legislature may realize … there's a proposal in the CRC, and it's a very meritorious proposal, that should really be handled by legislation."
Meanwhile, the House's bill is a large package with many provisions related to school choice, such as creating a new tax credit scholarship for students with low reading test scores, private school accountability measures and allowing top principals to oversee multiple schools. This means it will likely morph and change as it moves through committees, and it could become one of the many bargaining chips in play toward the end of the session as the Senate and House make trades for their top priorities.
A handful of school board members told the committee they were in favor of the concept, and though they had doubts about semantics of its implementation it would be a new growth opportunity.
Marva Johnson, chair of the state's Board of Education and the CRC committee, said she was enthusiastic about the idea.
"I think it's a broader perspective on the debate, and I don't think it's about choice, it's about excellence," she said. "What it does is it focuses on the fact that we already have traditional public schools with excellent performance and it gives them an opportunity to be as innovative as some charter schools might already be."
But the Florida Education Association, the teacher's union, said public schools have asked for flexibility and innovation but legislators have refused to accommodate them and instead have "at every turn, everything they've said they were going to do, they haven't done," said Jeff Wright, deputy chief of staff for the FEA.
"If there was trust there, this would be a whole different conversation," he said. "The problem is that when you put something in the constitution it is open to interpretation by a whole bunch of people and this Legislature, under the current round of leaders, have a tendency to interpret the Constitution in a way we don't agree with."
Martinez said the idea of competition doesn't always go both ways — and charter schools aren't thrilled that districts could have the advantages they enjoy.
"Some don't like the competition and that's not necessarily consistent," he said.
In addition to Proposal 4, which would eliminate the provision dating to Florida's 1885 Constitution prohibiting public funding "directly or indirectly" for any church, religious group or "sectarian institution," the committee passed other school choice proposals.
- Proposal 71 would allow the state to create a different governing body to approve new charter schools without the approval of district school boards.
- Proposal 45 would alter the Constitution’s language on education to include alternatives to district schools.
- Proposal 44 would require a super majority of the Legislature to raise tuition at public universities.
- Proposal 83 adds state colleges into the Constitution to cement their status, similar to universities and K-12 schools.
To become amendments on the ballot, the proposals must be approved by the full commission in March. Meanwhile, the commission has scheduled final committee meetings next week and will conduct a series of public hearings around the state in February.