Fla. House advances wide-ranging education bill

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The Florida House has combined a wide range of education initiatives into a single bill, triggering an intensely partisan debate over the future of public education.

The revised HB 7055, approved this morning by the Appropriations Committee, adds components the House has debated elsewhere to an already-substantial education bill.

Among other things, the initial bill would:

  • Allow school districts to create new “autonomous” public school networks.
  • Create a new scholarship program to help attend public-school students who struggle with reading*.
  • Tighten oversight of private school choice programs.

Some key additions include:

  • Legislation creating the Hope Scholarship program for students who are victims of violence and harassment*.
  • The House’s education budget bill, which, among other changes, would ensure Schools of Hope grant funding remains available for five years after the Legislature appropriates it.
  • HB 1279, which would tighten financial oversight of school districts.
  • Provisions borrowed from HB 25, which would require public employee unions to apply for recertification if fewer than 50 percent of the employees they represent are dues-paying members. The updated legislation would only apply to teachers unions.

Joanne McCall, the president of the statewide teachers union, objected to the measure and argued combining so many proposals in a single bill would violate the state constitution. Groups like the Florida Education Association have filed lawsuits in the past arguing wide-ranging education bills violated the single-subject rule in the state constitution, though one such lawsuit, filed in 2014, failed.

While contentious education bills in Florida are sometimes bipartisan, Democrats have taken a caucus position against the bill. Some, including Shevrin Jones, D-West Park and Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, echoed McCall’s concerns.

They also argued the state should pour resources into public schools to help bullying victims or struggling readers, rather than create new scholarship programs to help those students. And Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, argued the new scholarship programs were really about “finding another stealth way to push the voucher system” and steer public money into private hands.

But Rep. Mike Bileca, R-Miami, argued parents should be the ones deciding whether to move their children to safer schools where they felt threatened, or what resources their children should have at their disposal to improve lackluster reading results — above and beyond what their public schools already provide. He said the state needed to reaffirm parents’ role as the primary educators of their children.

“Somehow, some way, we’ve cut the parent out of the role that they traditionally had as the most important influence … on their child’s education,” Bileca said.

And Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Haileah and House education budget chief, said money for the new scholarship programs would come from sources outside the state’s core funding system for K-12 public schools. As a result, he argued, the new programs would complement efforts to improve public schools.

“We have to adapt to make sure that we keep up, and make sure that we are providing the best education that we can for our children,” he said.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, would help administer the Hope Scholarship and reading scholarship programs if lawmakers create them.

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