The Florida Legislature's massive education bill is a mishmash of good and bad ideas crammed into one hot mess on the last day of the legislative session. These issues, ranging from suicide prevention to prekindergarten readiness, from school choice to athletic recruiting, from construction money to charter schools, should have each been decided on their own merits. Instead, this train wreck is more about micromanaging school districts from Tallahassee than about real reform, and there are at least four reasons Gov. Rick Scott should veto the legislation.
One of the most controversial elements of HB 7029 is a move to create more school choice even though there already are ample choices for students and parents in many school districts. The bill would allow parents from any school district in the state whose child is not suspended or expelled to enroll their child in any public or charter school that has an open seat. There are several reasonable parts of the provision, including giving preferential treatment to students who move because of their parents' military assignment or who seek transfers because of court proceedings such as divorces. But on balance, open choice would create havoc for local districts. It also would create a bias toward students whose families have the time and resources to take them to the school of their choice miles away — even across county lines. It would not help poor children who could benefit from attending higher-performing schools with open seats or special programs but don't have reliable transportation to get there.
There is another break for charter schools in the bill, although it's not as generous as supporters originally sought. The bill would allow charter schools to receive capital funding within two years of being established instead of the three years required now. Reducing the time frame would shortchange taxpayers who deserve more proof that a charter school is sustainable and produces solid educational results before it gets construction money. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Nice-ville, attempted to make it more difficult for charters to get state money, particularly if they have ties to private or for-profit entities, but unfortunately lost in horse trading among lawmakers. What remains would make charters even less accountable and foolishly siphon more money from traditional public schools.
Lawmakers would limit local control over school construction spending decisions, including for revenue raised by local districts. Any district that exceeded the state's per student spending limits on capital projects would be subject to sanctions by Florida's auditor general. The sanctions would include being ineligible to receive public capital money for the next three years and oversight by a committee that would approve all capital expenses of the offending school district for three fiscal years. The auditor general could provide exemptions if overspending is considered to be the result of "extraordinary circumstances" outside of a district's control. But the legislation gives too much power to state officials to determine qualifying expenses, limits the ability of taxpayers to invest in their own schools and holds a big hammer over local districts.
Finally, the bill opens a Pandora's box for high school athletic programs by removing waiting periods for students who transfer to other schools and seek to play sports. The legislation would make students immediately eligible to play sports unless they transfer during a school year and attempt to play the same sport they were participating in at another school. Penalties for recruiting violations would be beefed up, but proving violations would be difficult and won't offset what could become rampant abuse by students who could switch schools to play different sports or transfer solely based upon the success of a school's team. School should be about more than sports, and this move widens the gap between schools' academic mission and athletics.
There is a reason lawmakers crammed so much into this 160-page bill on the last day of the session. They expected fellow legislators to accept the good measures and overlook bombshells such as fast-tracked charter school funding and largely unrestricted athletic transfers. Now that the Legislature has failed to properly vet this bill, it is up to the governor to read it carefully. If he cares about local control over public education, Scott should veto this hodgepodge and send a powerful message to lawmakers that ramming bad policy through in one big package on the last day of the session is unacceptable to Floridians who expect more responsible governance.