'School choice' becomes Florida law; Gov. Rick Scott also signs 19 other bills

Published April 14, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's public school students, starting in 2017-18, will be able to attend any school in the state that has space available, under a massive education bill that Gov. Rick Scott signed into law Thursday.

Starting July 1, the measure also will let high school athletes have immediate eligibility when transferring schools, and it will subject charter schools to more accountability and a new formula for receiving capital dollars.

Scott also signed 19 other bills, including the session's main transportation package and new laws affecting health care policy and Citizens Property Insurance Committee.

He also issued his second veto of the session, disapproving of HB 139 — which would have provided incentives for dentists who practice in under-served areas or who treat under-served patients. Scott said it did not place "appropriate safeguards on taxpayer investments" and it "is duplicative of existing programs."

Scott, a Republican, has just three bills left to act on of the 272 that lawmakers passed during the 2016 session. Two require his action by Saturday and the final one — a controversial bill reforming alimony and child custody arrangements — is due for action by Tuesday.

Among Thursday's actions, Scott signed four health care bills that are part of the free-market changes pushed by the Legislature — and especially House Republicans — this year.

Under the new laws, advanced registered nurse practitioners and physician assistants can prescribe controlled substances. And psychiatric nurses will have additional prescribing authority, as well — a change Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, says help address psychiatrist shortages in many parts of the state.

The governor signed a health care transparency bill (HB 1175) that creates a statewide database of hospital costs. It doesn't go as far as legislation he proposed that would have added penalties for hospitals that "price gouge" customers.

And he approved the first steps toward allowing telemedicine (HB 787) in Florida — using technology to provide health care across distance, and even from other states.

He signed another health care bill, as well, which is not part of lawmakers' free-market push. Supported by insurers and consumer advocacy groups, HB 221 ends the practice of "balance billing" by which patients are billed directly for out-of-network health care services. That legislation became the vehicle for a last-minute change by President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, to require insurers cover additional treatment options for children with Down syndrome.

Meanwhile, supporters of "school choice" policies heralded Scott's approval of HB 7029, a 160-page education bill that lawmakers negotiated into the final hours of session.

"By expanding Florida's school choice options, parents and students will be able to find an education solution that best fits their needs," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in a statement.

The Republican-led Legislature passed the bill mostly on a party-line vote. It's a combination of about a dozen different bills with various implications on Florida's education policy.

The most contentious aspect affects how the state's 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.

State dollars will now be weighted to favor charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities. The state allocated $75 million for charter school capital projects in 2016-17 — the same as what the state's 3,600 traditional schools will receive, in addition to their local sources of capital funding.

A casualty of legislative negotiations was an effort by the Senate to crackdown on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.

Advocates of traditional public schools wanted that included and they have said they also would've liked for the new accountability measures on charter schools to go even farther.

But the law does add some new standards for charters. They'll be required to provide monthly or quarterly financial statements — so potential money troubles can be flagged early — and any charter school with two consecutive "F" grades will be "automatically terminated."

The open enrollment provisions will affect all public schools, allowing students to attend any school in the state that hasn't reached capacity. The law gives preference to students living in the district, students moving because their parents are active-duty military personnel or students moving because of foster care placement or court-ordered custody arrangements.

State and district officials will now begin the steps to implement the policy. That'll be an easier endeavor in some counties than in others; some parts of the state — such as Tampa Bay — already allow students to attend school across county district lines.

Scott also signed a wide-ranging transportation bill (HB 7061) that requires DOT to install roadside barriers where state roads are next to lakes and ponds.

The bill also transfers the Pinellas Bayway to the state and requires state economists to study and report on the economic benefits of the state's five-year road construction work program. And it creates a new transportation oversight panel within the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Regarding Citizens Property Insurance, homeowners will get more information in the future when deciding if they should voluntarily leave that state-run insurer for a private company. Under HB 931, homeowners will get new details on all potential offers to switch to a private carriers and Citizens itself will be responsible for mailing them, instead of leaving it to private companies because customers have often mistaken what they receive as junk mail.

In the past, homeowners have complained that offers have come from private companies unfamiliar to them, and they threw the mail piece away. In addition, if there were multiple offers from private companies, Citizens only allowed one company of its choosing to present an offer. Now, Citizens will have to list all offers, giving customers some customers more options.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporters Michael Auslen, Jeremy Wallace and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark.