What all is in that massive Florida education bill?

Travis Pillow

Today, the Florida Senate is expected to vote on the biggest education bill of this year’s legislative session.

A contentious teachers union certification proposal might overshadow the rest of HB 7055.

But the bill also contains a wide range of provisions related to charter schools and educational choice. Here’s a rundown of what the Senate’s proposed rewrite would do.

Charter schools

High-performing charter schools would be able to replicate — meaning, open a similar school in a new location — twice a year, rather than just once. Last year, HB 7069 allowed high-performing charters to replicate more than once if they opened new schools in the vicinity of a persistently struggling public school.

In addition, the bill would place new legal standards on school boards that want to close charters. They would only be able to shut down charters for “material” violations of state law, rather than any law violations. School districts could still to shutter charters for financial problems, or for failing to meet academic goals. But they would have to appear before the state Division of Administrative Hearings before closing a charter school. This issue was the subject of some debate on the Senate floor.

District freedoms

Florida’s principal autonomy pilot program would be a pilot no more. It would be open to any school district in the state.

And principals granted autonomy through the program could manage entire networks of schools, known as “innovation zones.” The networks would operate within their districts and be exempt from many state education regulations. These schools would not be overseen by independent boards beyond the reach of their school district, as previous versions of the legislation contemplated.

School facilities

The legislation would set up a funding system that would blunt the effects of HB 7069 for school districts. It would create certainty for charter schools in the face of lawsuits challenging that new law. The only thing left to be decided is how much funding charter schools would receive through the state budget.

The bill would also give school districts more of the freedom charter schools enjoy under state construction rules. Right now, every district school in the state has to be built to serve as a potential hurricane shelter. That brings costly requirements, dealing with things like cafeteria capacity, that have little to do with student safety.

Under the bill, school boards could sidestep those requirements as long as local emergency management officials agree their communities already have enough shelters available.

Hope Scholarships

Students who are victims of bullying and violence would have the option of transferring to other public schools or receiving scholarships to attend private schools under a new program* championed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The legislation would follow the House’s approach, allowing students to qualify for the program after school officials investigate the incident or 15 days after parents report it, whichever happens first.

Reading scholarships

The bill would provide $9.7 million in funding for a new reading scholarship* program.

Parents whose children attend public schools and struggle on state reading tests could receive up to $500 to help pay for books, tutoring, summer programs or other reading-related expenses.

Private school oversight

The bill would make a number of changes unveiled earlier this year in the Florida House.

New schools that sign up to participate in private school choice programs would have to receive a visit from Department of Education officials before they could accept scholarships. Schools that receive McKay Scholarships would have to participate in the state’s financial oversight system for scholarship programs. State education officials would get improved access to schools’ fire safety reports.

New revenue

A state tax on commercial leases would be added to the potential funding sources for state school choice programs.

Companies that contribute to scholarship funding organizations (including Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog) could receive dollar-for-dollar credits.

The credits would be capped at $57.5 million, and nonprofit scholarship organizations would have to make Gardiner Scholarships the first funding priority in years when state appropriations don’t cover the demand from parents. Any leftover funding from these contributions could go to tax credit scholarships that help low-income and working-class students pay private school tuition.

Gov. Rick Scott, as well as several business groups, have pushed for years to eliminate, or at least lower, this tax on corporate leases.

Dual enrollment

The bill would eliminate multiple barriers to home- and private-school students who want to take classes offered by public colleges while they’re still in high school.

Articulation agreements could no longer specify that private schools are responsible for tuition (though colleges could possibly still charge them). Homeschoolers would no longer be responsible for textbook costs. And homeschoolers could no longer face academic requirements beyond those that apply to their peers who attend traditional schools.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer Florida’s tax credit and Gardiner Scholarship programs. It would help administer reading and Hope Scholarships if lawmakers create those programs.

This post has been updated to clarify the nature of the dual enrollment changes.

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