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What did Florida lawmakers do to our schools? Plus, the latest on coronavirus

A roundup of the legislative actions on education from the 2020 session.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, left, confers with Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville during session Tallahassee, Fla. Bradley sponsored legislation to end the controversial Best and Brightest teacher bonus program.
Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, left, confers with Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville during session Tallahassee, Fla. Bradley sponsored legislation to end the controversial Best and Brightest teacher bonus program. [ STEVE CANNON | AP ]
Published Mar. 14, 2020
Updated Mar. 14, 2020

It’s almost over. The Florida Legislature ended the part of its 2020 session where it could adopt bills, leaving only its budget undone. That’s expected to finish in the next few days. So what got through? Let’s take a look. Keep reading for those items and the latest coronavirus-related Florida education news.

The Winners

There will be raises. Gov. Ron DeSantis started talking about putting more money into public school teachers’ pockets six months ago. He called for nearly $1 billion for salaries and bonuses. Members of the Senate and House agreed with the concept, but had differing approaches to get there. It took until the 11th hour of session to reach an agreement, with the Senate (mostly) prevailing with an amendment to an obscure House bill (641) that ultimately had no opposition, though many lawmakers agreed more work remains to improve the pay of all education employees.

There won’t be bonuses. Ever since its inception, Florida’s Best and Brightest teacher bonus program proved controversial. Teachers blasted the criteria as unfair, and the underlying concept of one-time pay boosts as unhelpful when seeking stability in their finances. DeSantis looked to overhaul the system, but tried to keep bonuses in place. Lawmakers decided to repeal bonuses altogether, and included that move in HB 641 mentioned above. “This is a bill that listens to our teachers ... who have told us, ‘We don’t want your bonus program,’” Senate Appropriations chairman Rob Bradley said Friday. “We are going in the right direction.”

Lawmakers love school vouchers. So much so that the Senate on Friday adopted a bill (HB 7067) that would quadruple the rate at which the program would grow annually without any debate at all. The House had some dramatic discussion about the measure, with much attention paid to whether the model allows private schools to discriminate against LGBTQ youth. (Bills and amendments to ban such admission rules failed in both chambers.) Sen. Tom Lee offered some fiery criticism of his own when the measure arrived in the upper chamber after 2 p.m. on the final day of session. But it wasn’t enough to change the long anticipated outcome.

Did you panic about this one? Aiming to make it easier to report emergencies in schools, lawmakers proposed requiring panic alarms in classrooms. The idea almost ran aground as vendors circled the chambers, angling for a piece of the action. But SB 70 eventually passed after the sides reached a compromise.

Student-athletes deserve more protections. Over the summer, a young high school football player from Tampa died after overheating at a training session. Lawmakers jumped into action, proposing a measure to require schools have cooling items available at all outdoor sporting activities, and all coaches trained to detect and react to heat stroke. The passage of HB 7011 never really was in doubt. “This bill is pretty straightforward,” sponsor Rep. Ralph Massullo said. “We want to save lives.”

Higher education got some attention, too. Lawmakers piled most of their proposals for colleges and universities into a single measure (SB 72) that also went down to the wire. It included proposals to increase Bright Futures scholarships for college (as opposed to university) students, and amendments that would shield college and university president searches from public records rules. It passed after lawmakers removed some of the more contentious ideas.

Lawmakers have worked to improve school safety laws each session since the February 2018 shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.
Lawmakers have worked to improve school safety laws each session since the February 2018 shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland.

The Losers

What? No school safety bill? That’s right. One of the final measures to get discussed before midnight Friday was the bill considering recommendations from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. Debate over the age at which children may be arrested played a key role in the conversation. Few expected it to undo the proposal. But it did.

Didn’t they promise fewer tests, too? In announcing new academic standards for Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke of the need to scale back testing and modify the state’s school accountability system, as well. A bill (HB 7079) quickly emerged in the House to do all that. The language later was added to a Senate train (SB 62), too. But even with changes designed to appease critics, the sponsors couldn’t bring either bill to a final vote.

Optional moments of silence will have to do. Suggesting that students would benefit from time for personal reflection before classes, some state lawmakers called for requiring a daily moment of silence in all public schools. The bill (SB 737) sailed through the House and made it all the way to third and final reading in the Senate. Where it died. The idea went much further than a related measure (HB 341 / SB 746) to require schools to offer elective courses in the Bible. That one never even got a hearing.

Are we testing students’ knowledge, or their English language skills? After years of trying, 2020 looked to be the year that Florida lawmakers would allow students to take their state exams in their native language, starting with Spanish. The bill (SB 678) had strong bipartisan support, especially from south Florida. Still, it never saw the light of day.

It’s still okay to use restraint and seclusion. Teachers have long used the methods of restraint and seclusion to control students with disabilities who become a threat to themselves or others. Some lawmakers and parents found the practice repugnant and aimed to scale it back. This year the plan looked to have a better chance than at any time in the past decade. But the measures (SB 1644 / HB 1231) again failed.

Parents still have rights, but ... A new chapter of Florida statute to make clear, in the views of the sponsors, that parents know better than government will have to wait. The measure (SB 1634 / HB 1059) again proved controversial and didn’t get out of committee.

There were others, too. Among the more high profile flameouts, plans to improve the state’s prekindergarten program failed. (HB 1013 / SB 1616) • The Senate again killed a push to establish school board term limits. (HJR 157 / SJR 1216) • And a proposal to allow state universities to authorize charter schools fell flat for a second year in a row. (HB 953 / SB 1578)

School buses will remain parked the next two weeks as classes are canceled to help slow the spread of coronavirus. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Tampa Bay Times]
School buses will remain parked the next two weeks as classes are canceled to help slow the spread of coronavirus. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Tampa Bay Times]

In other news

Don’t go stir crazy. In case you missed the Friday evening news flash, Gov. Ron DeSantis and education commissioner Richard Corcoran “strongly recommended” that all Florida public schools close for the next two weeks to help stem the spread of coronavirus. (It’s a slightly different plan for a handful of districts that already had spring break.) Why just a recommendation? DeSantis and Corcoran don’t have the actual constitutional authority to shut down the schools, which remain under the control of school boards and superintendents. Do you think any of them said no, though?

It’s not just the public schools. The Diocese of St. Petersburg was among the private schools that decided to take precautions, too.

What about Match Day for Florida’s medical students? Postponed, as well.

Coming Up

Go to the beach. Read a book. Binge watch something. Because pretty much everything organized has been canceled. Do you have enough toilet paper? Check back with us in two weeks.

Did you know?

If you’ve decided to travel over spring break, new rules are now in place for when you come back. Some parents are already complaining that Florida schools told them to go into 14 days of self-quarantine if they travel abroad or take a cruise. But never fear. The cruise lines are helping in their own way. They’re canceling, too.