TALLAHASSEE — After two months of policy debate, negotiations and some quick last-minute votes, Friday marked the passage of several k-12 education bills, plus the shocking death of one that had not seemed to be jeopardy until the final hours of session.
The bills that passed will make sweeping changes, laying out the structure for millions in teacher raises and increasing the number of private school vouchers.
Despite having been meeting for the past two months, it took until the final hours of the 2020 regular session for many of the most important education bills to cross the finish line — or fail just before it.
House Bill 7065 was the third school safety package bill proposed by the Legislature since the 2018 Parkland shooting, and it was the first one to fail.
Rather than inspiring contentious, emotional debate over guns, this year’s version contained tweaks to tighten up the Legislature’s previous laws, adding mental health training requirements for campus police and armed staff, for example.
It also would have required districts and charter schools to better reunite students with their parents after an emergency event.
It was also amended to include a ban on the arrest of children under 7, unless they commit a violent felony. That was in response to a viral case of an Orlando 6-year-old who was arrested at school for throwing a tantrum. The House had originally only required police departments to have policies for the arrest of young children, but the Senate beefed up the language to be an outright ban on arrests in the waning days.
But a last-minute dispute over differences between the House and Senate versions led to the bill being tossed back and forth between the chambers. It finally ran out of time before it could pass.
“I’m wondering a little bit about what happened. (Senate) President (Bill) Galvano and I ran the Marjory Stoneman Douglas bill (in 2018). This is an area that is very important to him, and it’s very important to me,” said House Speaker José Oliva, after the regular session ended at midnight.
He added that much of the negotiations on Friday were related to the coronavirus, and making sure that the bill creating tax cuts was tailored to the coming economic hardships caused by the pandemic. Which left less time for bills like this one.
One significant bill that passed, House Bill 641, mirrored the teacher raises originally proposed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. While the state budget remains unfinished — the Legislature will meet over the weekend to finalize it — it’s still unclear just how much money will be dedicated toward the raises.
But this bill answers a crucial question: who counts as a “teacher” and who will be prioritized to receive the pay boost.
Specifically, the bill says that districts and charter schools will get money from the state, roughly proportionate to their number of students, for raises. Those raises must go toward increasing the base salary for full-time classroom teachers, plus certified prekindergarten teachers, with the goal of reaching a minimum of $47,500.
However, early number-crunching by the statewide teachers’ union shows that many districts may not be able to reach that goal, if the state sets aside $500 million for the raises, which is the number that’s been floated.
If the district has any money left over, they can then use it to boost the pay of veteran teachers, who may make just above that minimum but who have not seen their pay raise in years. It could also then be used for other instructional personnel, such as librarians or counselors.
The bill was widely praised by lawmakers, and was passed unanimously in the Senate before getting final approval in the House.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, called it a “tremendous commitment to public education.”
But the bill got unexpected criticism from one leading Republican, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who chairs the Senate Education budgeting committee and said that this will mean that new teachers make nearly as much as some underpaid veterans, hurting morale.
“We could’ve done better,” she said.
Private school vouchers
Finally, the Legislature also passed a bill Friday that will dramatically increase the number of private school vouchers handed out by the state.
It passed without any changes to the House version, despite the efforts of Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, who proposed an amendment to require private schools to annually report to the Department of Education how many students attend their schools, how many receive vouchers or tax credit scholarships and the number of students by grade level who left the school, and their reason for doing so.
Lee made a defiant speech on the floor, bucking his fellow Republicans, saying that the state doesn’t do enough oversight of the millions it spends on its programs that allow students to attend private schools.
“I am asking for basic information that apparently already exists but I’ve got to go buy a prayer rug and kneel before the Department of Education to get it,” he said. “If there’s something to hide I can understand why we wouldn’t want this report in front of us. But I would submit to you that there isn’t.”
His amendment failed, after other Republicans like Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said this data is already being collected. Stargel said that the additional reporting burden on private schools could cause some of them to leave the program. Florida’s voucher and tax credit scholarship programs are geared toward lower-income students, with income being part of the eligibility criteria.
“If you make it too difficult on these private schools they’ll stop accepting these scholarships and these kids will no longer have that opportunity,” she said.
This bill, House Bill 7067, quadruples the rate at which the number of vouchers would grow each year, starting with 28,000 more scholarships in the first year, as part of Florida’s Family Empowerment Scholarship. That program was created last year with a cap of 18,000 vouchers.
It also adjusts the income criteria to make it available to more middle-income families, if there are vouchers leftover after the lowest income families are served.