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  1. Opinion

Dockery: Beware the education train

Rep. Erik Fresen’s 57-page charter school bill was loaded up with other issues and passed on the last day of the session without meaningful public input.
Rep. Erik Fresen’s 57-page charter school bill was loaded up with other issues and passed on the last day of the session without meaningful public input.
Published Mar. 17, 2016

The Florida legislative session is over. Anyone following the Legislature knows it finished on time with the House and Senate working remarkably well together.

Controversial bills on social issues received a lot of media attention and social media buzz. The bills on abortion, alimony, cohabitation, medical marijuana, the death penalty and pastor protection all passed.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, is eyeing a run for agriculture commissioner and secured passage of his priority — an agriculture-friendly water policy bill. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park, was finally able to achieve his goal of expanding scholarships for disabled students and job opportunities for workers with disabilities.

Gun-related bills on open carry and campus carry passed in the House but got held up in the Senate. A computer coding bill that would have allowed coding classes to count toward foreign language requirements went nowhere in the House. Mandatory recess, film incentives, Uber regulations and the red-light camera repeal all came up short.

Two big issues that had a lot of political power behind them — fracking and gaming — fell apart as well. The defeat of the fracking bill was a rare win for the grassroots opposition fighting against powerful special interests and their political influence. The gaming compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe would have generated $3 billion over seven years. It fell victim to other parties wanting in on the action.

Most, if not all, of these issues were in stand-alone bills. They were easy to understand and fairly easy to follow.

When bills are in danger of stalling, they are often added (amended) to another bill (vehicle) that is moving. When that vehicle starts picking up numerous quasi-related issues, it becomes a train.

Legislators use these trains to force the other chamber to accept something they don't want by attaching it to something they do. These bills are difficult to follow and often collapse under their own weight. For this tactic to be effective, it needs to be timed perfectly so that under the pressure of running out of time, one side caves.

HB 7029 turned into the education train. It started in the House as a 57-page charter school bill — a priority of Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who has close ties to charter school management and construction companies. It ended up as one of the most controversial and one of the least transparent mega-bills of the session.

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, was the conductor loading it up. His original three-page bill grew to 89 pages when amended in a Senate committee and then to 132 pages on the Senate floor. SB 1166 — the Senate companion to the education train — absorbed education issues from perhaps 20 other bills.

How could legislators possibly know what they were voting for? The bill — with its massive changes — bounced back and forth between the two chambers three times over the session's hectic last three days.

It passed late on the last day of session without the public having a meaningful opportunity for comment since most of the changes took place on the Senate and House floors.

The final bill is a conglomeration of unrelated and contentious education policies. It allows students to transfer to any public school anywhere in the state if there is capacity — a nightmare for school district planning and budgeting. It allows high school athletes who change schools to be immediately eligible to play — which opens up high school athletics to potential recruiting.

It financially punishes school districts for overspending on construction while making it easier for charter schools to get access to capital funding. It attempts to weaken the school board membership association that often disagrees with legislative policy changes. It relies on performance measures to determine college and university funding.

On a positive note, it creates a funding formula for charter school capital costs that favors charters that serve poor and disabled students.

Unfortunately, a key Senate proposal that prevented charter school operators from using public funds to build or improve facilities they own for their private gain was removed from the bill at the House's insistence. Wasn't this the reason for the train in the first place?

The bill warranted more scrutiny for both its contents and for the process used to push it through.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She can be reached at PBDockery@gmail.com.