Nearly 200 of Florida’s lowest-performing public schools would have to make dramatic changes, or could soon see more of their students leaving for “Schools of Hope” run by national charter school operators, under a bill headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk.
The wide-ranging education policy overhaul would affect everything from charters and recess to teacher contracts and virtual schooling.
After passing the House earlier in the afternoon, HB 7069 cleared the Senate 20-18, meaning one more no-vote would have killed it.
Three Republicans joined Democrats in opposition, including state David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, who presented the bill in a tense debate on the Senate floor.
Simmons and his House counterpart, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, brokered a compromise that would speed up the timetable for public school turnarounds, while spending setting aside nearly $140 million in grants for proven charter school operators that come to Florida and expand wraparound services in persistently low-performing public schools.
But Simmons said the bill would only supply those grants to 25 district-run schools — or about an eighth of those that might qualify. And he said struggling schools would only have two years to shake their D and F state letter grades before they would face closures or charter conversions. He questioned whether that would be enough time.
At one point, he said, luring new charter schools to open in the vicinity of district schools that could eventually close would “lead to the potential of significant waste.”
As a result, he told fellow Senators: “Vote your conscience.” And he predicted there would be cleanup work to do when lawmakers resume committee hearings in September.
“We’re going to have to be back to fix it,” he said during a debate that marked the final day of an extended legislative session.
Supporters, all of them Republicans, said there were worthwhile changes in the bill, which combined most of the high-profile education issues lawmakers had discussed during their spring lawmaking session.
Simmons noted the bill includes $30 million to fund roughly 2,700 Gardiner scholarships for children with special needs*. And Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, said it would advance goals she’d campaigned on, like cutting back standardized testing.
Other measures that got less attention, like expanding virtual education eligibility and freeing the highest-performing traditional public schools from state regulations, had won support in both chambers from members of both parties.
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, mounted some of the most forceful opposition to the package, which he called a “piece of junk” and a “monstrosity” that was “utterly offensive and repugnant.”
The more-aggressive timetable for school districts to either turn low-performing schools around, close them or convert them to charters would “hasten the privatization of public education,” he argued, and the Legislature itself was to blame for the academic performance of schools it had “under-funded.” He tried unsuccessfully to get 278 pages of revisions to the bill ruled out of order.
The bill faced smoother sailing earlier in the day in the House, where leaders had championed the proposal and Speaker Richard Corcoran spent months calling on colleagues to “end failure factories.” It passed 73-36, roughly along party lines, with little debate and a Democrat (Roy Hardemon of Miami) in support.
In the Senate, as Simmons raised concerns about the specifics of the proposal, he noted the importance of wraparound services for children who might otherwise come to school hungry or without medical care. And he pointed to the success of KIPP charter schools and the SEED School of Miami, which extend their school days to help disadvantaged children succeed academically.
“The concept here of helping these children and doing this, I applaud and continue to applaud,” he said.
*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer Gardiner scholarships.