The massive education bill Florida legislators approved on the final day of their annual session has stirred more passion than any in recent years.
Charter school advocates and House members are actively campaigning for HB 7069. School district leaders are calling on Gov. Rick Scott to veto it. Parents and education activists have spoken up on both sides.
A key theme binds many key concepts in the 278-page bill — a theme that has shaped education agendas in the Florida Legislature for several years, and defines battles that will continue after the politicking over this proposal subsides.
If approved, the bill would represent a power shift. It would move control away from district central offices and place it in the hands of individual school leaders. Charter schools would have more equitable funding. More district schools would have charter-like freedoms. In high-poverty schools, principals, not districts, would decide how to spend federal Title I funding to help their low-income students.
A key backer of the proposal, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, is a former public-school administrator. He recalls turnaround efforts, in which central office bureaucrats would stream in and out of the school building, looking over educators’ shoulders, providing little in the way of actual “support.”
He said districts should embrace a new approach. They need to hire high-caliber school leaders and make sure they’re in sync with their communities. Then, stop micromanaging them. Let them control their own budgets. Give them the authority to pick the best teachers.
“Put the right leader in place, and they’re in charge. Hold them accountable, but they’re in charge,” Diaz said. “All of that is themed around giving the autonomy back to the school.”
Diaz and fellow Republican House members have tried to extend the freedoms enjoyed by charters to more district-run public schools. This year, a principal autonomy pilot program took root at nine schools in three districts. Leaders of those schools get greater authority over staffing and budgets, and more freedom from state education regulations.
The bill would expand that concept dramatically across the state. Principals at the top-performing one-fifth of public schools get the same freedoms as their counterparts in the autonomy program, plus more control over their schools’ schedules and start times.
Principals in public schools rated D or F would also get autonomy to tackle the “educational emergency” that would be declared in their schools. Their districts could develop plans for “whole school … transformation in consultation with the school’s principal,” allowing them to compete for additional resources, in the form of $2,000-per-student grants that could fund wrap-around services in up to 25 traditional public schools.
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, sought the grants for district schools in a bid to engineer a compromise with the House’s “Schools of Hope” initiative. But he voted against the final proposal after raising concerns about how it would be implemented.
He said turnaround schools would have just two years (or three if the state board approved a waiver) to raise their grades to C’s before “draconian” consequences took hold. Districts could continue to run those schools — if they turned oversight over to an independent charter board. Their other options would be to convert the schools to conventional charters or close them.
“There’s just not enough to go around before the sledgehammer hits a public school after two years, when they’re required to either close or do the other things,” Simmons said on the Senate floor. “What employee would want to stay at a school that has those concerns? You’re going to have problems with recruitment and retention.”
He predicted lawmakers would need to revisit those issues if the bill becomes law.
Federal funding ‘smoke and mirrors’
The bill would also shift power over money. It would require school districts to send federal Title I funding directly to schools, and limit the amount they can hold onto for district-wide services.
Proponents of the change have argued school leaders should control the funding intended to help the students in their schools, in part because they’re in a better position to assess their students’ needs.
Cheryl Sattler, a consultant who advises districts on federal funding issues, has emerged as a vocal critic of the proposal. She said it’s premised on the idea that “all schools want to do the right thing and all districts want to do the wrong thing.” But she said sometimes, the opposite is true. Districts hire consultants like her to decipher complex federal programs, which might be beyond the grasp of an individual principal.
Districts themselves argue individual Title I schools don’t receive enough funding to pay for all the programs they need. The Tampa Bay Times detailed how some districts pool funding to concentrate more resources — including reading and math coaches — in their highest-needs schools.
During debates in a legislative committee, Diaz argued individual schools could still pool resources to fund shared programs if the changes were approved. They’d just have to do so voluntarily.
Meanwhile, charter school leaders say district-controlled programs can be difficult to for them to navigate.
In an interview before the legislative session began, Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, said districts sometimes use federal funding to create programs for which charters technically qualify, but use “smoke and mirrors” to hide resources from them — even though, under both state and federal law, low-income students in high-poverty charter schools are required to receive the same level of services as their peers in traditional public schools.
Another change in the bill would give charter schools more control over federal funding in a different way. It would allow some charter networks (those with multiple schools in the same district, or those that qualify as Schools of Hope) to function as Local Education Agencies with the ability to receive funding directly.
State Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former district superintendent who now runs the statewide superintendents association, noted that the Lake Wales charter school system, in Polk County, already has that authority. But he warned expanding those arrangements might clash with provisions in Florida’s constitution that place exclusive authority over public schools in the hands of county-wide school boards.
“Constitutionally, legally … the school board is responsible for the education of those students in that school district,” he said. “They are the LEAs for Florida.”
Legislative debates over public education often follow a similar pattern. Reformers promote state-level accountability systems and autonomous schools (like charters) that operate outside districts’ control and give parents more choices. Teachers unions fight to keep control in the hands of local school boards, and find allies among district leaders.
That’s why, when asked about opposition to the bill on the last day of the legislative session, House Speaker Richard Corcoran argued lawmakers were trying to intervene on behalf of students and educators.
“I think it’s the greatest educational K-12 policy that we’ve passed in the history of the state, that does more to transform kids’ lives, free up teachers, free up administration to go out there and educate our youth,” he said. “For those situations where they’re not doing it, and they’re stuck in failure factories, we have game-changing legislation that says that won’t happen anymore.”
Debate over the bill has blurred with concerns about the way it was enacted, combining a wide range of proposals days before the end of an extended legislative session. And it’s wrapped up in a larger political standoff around the state budget. It includes money for special needs scholarships* and steers new revenue to charter school facilities that would face a funding hit if it doesn’t win approval.
But it also outlines a conflict over the future of public education that won’t be going away anytime soon.
*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the Gardiner scholarship program.