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Florida plans to cut red tape for schools. But will lawmakers add some too?

As the Legislature looks to deregulate public education, more rules are proposed.
 
State Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, holds a book containing the state education code to make a point during a meeting of the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee on Nov. 15. He said the code was more than 3 inches thick and needs to be trimmed of some restrictions on school districts.
State Sen. Corey Simon, R-Tallahassee, holds a book containing the state education code to make a point during a meeting of the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee on Nov. 15. He said the code was more than 3 inches thick and needs to be trimmed of some restrictions on school districts. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Dec. 9, 2023

During a recent committee meeting in the Florida Capitol, Sen. Corey Simon hoisted a copy of the state’s inches-thick education code and set it on a table.

“I know we aren’t supposed to use props, but that’s it,” said Simon, a Tallahassee Republican and chairperson of the Senate Education PreK-12 Committee.

Calling the book “great reading if you want to go to sleep at night,” he talked about the need to ease the burdens state law places on public school systems — a key theme of the 2024 legislative session starting next month.

“As you can see,” Simon said, “there’s a lot we can do.”

School board members across the state are embracing the historic effort, a priority of Senate President Kathleen Passidomo. They say fewer mandates would give them breathing room to innovate and better compete with charter and private schools. This past week in Pasco County, the school board made plans to let local legislators know how the initiative would help the district.

Yet even as lawmakers talk of deregulating schools, they are proposing adding new rules too.

Almost 50 House and Senate bills pertaining to education already have been filed for 2024, not including those pertaining to deregulation. Their topics include dual enrollment, career programs, teacher bonuses and age requirements for compulsory education. More education bills are expected.

Some proposals have raised red flags among school district officials, who worry they would create added difficulties rather than provide the flexibility and local control that deregulation is intended to offer.

For example, House Bill 109 and its identical companion, Senate Bill 246, would allow municipalities to petition to take over district schools and convert them to charter status. It further would eliminate the need to have at least half of a school’s teachers support the conversion to make it a reality. And it would allow the state-level Charter School Review Commission to approve local charter conversions.

Some district leaders observed that, if passed, the proposal could let a minority of parents within a school lead a takeover of it, with state permission, while still leaving districts to maintain the buildings.

Two other bills, HJR 331 and HB 333, seek to give homeowners a tax break by extending a $25,000 homestead exemption that does not apply to school districts. Currently, districts tax homes at an assessed value that’s $25,000 higher than the value other taxing entities use.

If voters were to approve such a constitutional amendment, school districts could lose millions of dollars in tax revenue, and face major program cuts. About 80% of a district’s general operations goes toward employee pay, and most districts are the largest employer in their county.

Even Simon has proposed adding requirements for public schools.

His bill (SB 624), which has yet to get a House companion, would increase the number of mandatory career courses a district must offer from two to four. It further states at least one of those courses must be in agriculture, construction or trades, early childhood education, health care or hospitality.

None of these bills would affect private education — despite lawmakers’ stated goal of placing public schools on a more equal footing with the private options.

Danielle Thomas, a lobbyist for the Florida School Boards Association, said she hoped lawmakers will be mindful of the overall goal as they work through the session that starts Jan. 9.

“We’re hopeful we don’t go through the process to untie our hands in one area, and then have additional pieces put on us on the other side,” Thomas said. “There’s a lot of time and effort going into deregulation.”

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Spotlight on education

The public is invited to a community conversation about the future of Florida public schools on Tuesday, Jan. 30, at the Tampa Theatre, hosted by the Tampa Bay Times. In the second installment of the Spotlight Tampa Bay series, Times journalists will moderate a discussion by experts, followed by a panel featuring students. Tickets are $20; $10 for students. Proceeds benefit the Times’ Journalism Fund. To purchase tickets, click here.