In a move that surprised few and angered many, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed into law a massive education bill that legislative leaders crafted behind closed doors in the final days of their spring session.
He did so at an Orlando Catholic school that serves children with special needs, highlighting the bill's $30 million expansion of private school scholarships for students with disabilities while downplaying the criticisms. Several House members and former Senate president Andy Gardiner joined him.
The bill "paves the way for every Florida student to receive a world-class education that every student deserves," Scott said before signing the measure at 4:08 p.m.
He added he was especially proud to expand the scholarship program, to provide education access and resources to students with unique abilities. Scott praised House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who stood alongside him, for shepherding the bill to passage.
Corcoran returned the compliments, calling Scott a "passionate advocate for a great quality education" and saying the bill provides greater options for all. "This is a guy who cares about every single child."
Even before the signing, reaction came swiftly as news it would happen filtered out.
"He should come here to veto it. We would have welcomed him with open arms," Pinellas County School Board member Carol Cook said from the Tampa Grand Hyatt Hotel, where the Florida School Boards Association and Florida Association of District School Superintendents were holding their annual summer conference.
Both groups had urged Scott to veto the legislation.
"It's a bad bill with some good stuff sprinkled in," said FSBA president Tim Harris, a Polk County School Board member.
Indian River County School Board member Shawn Frost, president of the smaller Florida Coalition of School Board members, disagreed. He said the final version was "most fair" to both school systems and families.
"I think 7069 is a fantastic bill for parents, for students. Less so for the status quo," said Frost, who did not attend the FSBA conference. "I think it's pure gold."
So, too, did Matt Wiseman, executive director of the Pinellas Autism Project.
"Expansion of the Gardiner scholarships is a good thing for families because it gives them a choice," Wiseman said. "When it comes to people with autism, everyone is different. Any time you can get more choices, it's great."
Adam Goldman of Lake Mary, whose daughter receives a scholarship, called the added funding "crucial."
"Word is getting out about the Gardiner program. More parents are applying. That would have created a longer wait list," said Goldman, who sits on a Gardiner Scholarship parent advisory board and attended Thursday's signing. "This was a good move for the governor. I'm appreciative of it."
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In addition to the Gardiner Scholarship expansion, the measure (HB 7069) includes provisions from more than 20 separate pieces of legislation, as well as some ideas that had not been fully vetted in both chambers and at least one item that had been killed in a Senate committee.
Observers suggested the combination of so many disparate concepts into one conforming bill that had to be voted up or down, without amendments, came as a way to tie the hands of lawmakers who opposed certain actions but did not want to vote down other popular things that were also included.
It became one of the most hotly debated bills both in the Legislature and across Florida.
Generating perhaps the most controversy was a plan to create a new system of charter schools to replace traditional public schools that have consistently under performed on state exams. A priority of Corcoran, whose wife operates a Pasco County charter school, the "schools of hope" program would bring charter school operators with proven success rates in low-performing schools to communities where the traditional schools have earned consecutive state grades of D or F.
School district officials also railed against the bill's provisions that would have them restructure the way they use Title I federal funds for low-income students, and share the local tax revenue they receive for capital projects such as school construction. Those concerns remained as news of Scott's decision flowed.
"The big one I have the most concerns about is the Title I language. It's not going to serve our highest needs schools well," Hillsborough County superintendent Jeff Eakins said. "It's going to deny them some key resources and key opportunities. ... The federal law has been in place 52 years. Now we have two weeks" to change everything.
Thousands of people urged Scott to kill the bill, including some Republican lawmakers who suggested another special session to repair the "problems" within it. But thousands more called on the governor to sign HB 7069 because of the positive items in it that would benefit their children and teachers.
• A $30 million expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship program for students with disabilities.
• A daily recess mandate for all Florida elementary schools (except charter schools).
• Elimination of the mandatory tie between student test scores and teacher evaluation results through the value-added model (VAM).
• Deletion of the Algebra II end-of-course state exam.
• A shift in the state testing window to later in the spring, along with a return to paper-pencil testing for several grade levels.
The items, though welcome, did not satisfy even some people who initially requested the changes.
"I would consider that (elimination of VAM) a pebble, really," said Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association president Mike Gandolfo. "You're still going to have to tie student performance to a teacher's livelihood. Whether it's VAM or whether it's a test that the district sends out, it's still doesn't take into account a million other things that (affect) a kid's ability to take a test."
Pinellas County education advocate Jinia Parker said she felt played by the Legislature.
"Every single bit of the good in this bill was calculated, very much calculated in closed doors," Parker said. "It violates everything that public education advocates stand for. There's not nearly enough in this bill to make the cost worth it, not nearly."
Scott signed the bill just one day after his unexpected veto of higher education legislation that had been Senate President Joe Negron's top priority. The juxtaposition of the two decisions sparked political intrigue as chatter emerged whether Scott was positioning himself behind Speaker Corcoran, with whom he had feuded throughout session over economic development, education funding and other high profile issues.
His planned signature brought rumblings of a legal challenge by lawmakers who have questioned whether the bill was properly considered during session.
Sen. Gary Farmer, a Broward County Democrat who sits on the Senate Education Committee, raised points of order during debate that the bill had not been subject to a thorough review as required in Senate rules.
On Tuesday, he sent Scott a letter detailing the problems with the process and asking him to kill the bill.
"While there are small pockets of good policy hidden within this bill, it is a monstrosity when coupled with the multitude of bad policies that have been included," Farmer wrote. "Understanding the bad policy that is contained in this bill and the lack of transparency employed in its passage I urge you to please veto HB 7069."
With the bill's passage into law, school districts will turn their attention to implementing it by its July 1 effective date.
"It is what it is," said Beverly Slough, a St. Johns County School Board member and former Florida School Boards Association president. "As good public servants we will do what we can to implement the law. But we will also do what we can to get it improved for the future."
Many school boards already have begun revising their codes of conduct and student progression plans to include such things as the recess requirement and the testing changes.
They also have started revamping their budget plans to take into consideration the new Title I and capital outlay fund rules.
The Pasco County school district, for instance, scaled back all its Title I-funded summer programs to end June 30, so it will not use money the state now wants allocated to schools rather than districts.
The Pinellas County school district prepared to eliminate recruitment and retention bonuses for teachers at high-poverty schools, also paid for by district-level Title I money.
Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who heads the state's superintendents association, said he was disappointed with Scott's signature, though he quickly noted the Legislature approved the bill and it was the governor's right to enact it. He suggested the stakes were higher than a single bill.
The future of public education lies in the balance, Montford said.
"Do the people of Florida support this bill? Do the people of Florida understand what's in this bill?" he said. "If the people of Florida think it will damage the public school system, then what will the people do about it? This is a much bigger issue than just 7069."
This story has been updated as new information became available.
Staff writer Colleen Wright contributed to this story.