Editorial: Senate should reject House's attack on public schools

SCOTT KEELER   |   Times Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran talks with Tampa Bay Times/ Miami Herald/ and AP reporters in his office about the 2018 session. 1/9/18.
SCOTT KEELER | Times Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran talks with Tampa Bay Times/ Miami Herald/ and AP reporters in his office about the 2018 session. 1/9/18.
Published Feb. 13, 2018

After pummeling public education so soundly last year, it's little surprise Republican state legislators are mounting another attack on public schools, teachers and local districts. The mammoth education bill passed by the House last week is loaded with unacceptable policy changes that further grease the skids for private and charter schools, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran gamed the normal process by tying it all to school funding. The Senate, which has shown some spine in resisting Corcoran's tactics, should take apart this mess, keep the positive changes and throw the rest out.

The education legislation, HB 7055, covers nearly 200 pages and touches numerous policy areas such as expanding vouchers, undercutting unions and directing school capital funding. Those are disparate issues that should be considered individually. But that's not the strategy, and the House passed a bloated bill that would:

• Create a new voucher-like program for students who are bullied in public schools. "Hope Scholarships" would provide $750 to pay for busing to another public school, or a scholarship of about $7,000 to help offset tuition at a private school. But public schools are required by law to have detailed policies for dealing with bullying, investigating incidents, referring victims and perpetrators for follow-up services and informing parents. Private schools are not. Further, it makes no sense to deal with bullying by moving victims while allowing bullies to stay where they are. Yet this is a top priority for Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who has yet to find a bill that sends more kids to private schools on the taxpayers' dime that he would oppose.

• Set new membership requirements for teachers' unions. The bill specifically exempts other public employee unions from requiring majority participation for the union to be certified. It's bad politics to declare war on police officers and firefighters, but public school teachers are a favorite target in Tallahassee. The Senate should reject this provision.

• Allow third-graders who fail the state reading test to access a tax credit scholarship. Like the Hope Scholarship, this is just another attempt to expand Florida's voucher-like system and sap more resources from the public school system.

• Establish ill-defined autonomous schools that would be governed by individual boards and operate outside the authority of elected county school boards. There is no need to create another avenue for subverting local control.

• Provide millions in state funding for charter school construction.

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The bill, of course, contains a few more palatable provisions. It adds accountability measures to some private schools that receive state vouchers, which advocates have long sought. It also reverts all math and language arts state tests for grades 3 through 8 to paper tests, which many parents have long supported. But the bad outweighs the good by a long shot.

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After the House passed the bill Thursday on a party-line vote, the Senate smartly maneuvered to slow it down and give it more scrutiny. Less than four weeks remain in the legislative session, and the pressure will only increase to push through high-priority legislation such as HB 7055. The Senate should stand firm for public schools in Florida and strip the most extreme provisions out of this legislation that seeks to further undermine teachers and public education.