The new chairman of the Florida Senate Education Committee said Tuesday he wants to focus on expanding school choice.
“It is important to continue to meet the individual needs of every child,” said Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah. “My continued goal is to make sure that all parents have the best options available for their child. A full menu of parental choice options should be looked at.”
That menu, according to Diaz, should include expansion of education saving accounts, tax credit scholarships for low-income students, charter schools, magnet schools, online learning and vocational training. He also wants to revisit the issue of establishing a statewide authorizer for charter schools.
Diaz is newly elected to the Senate, but is an education veteran in the Capitol. He served six years in the Florida House of Representatives, with the last two as chairman of the PreK-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee. He spent nearly two decades working in Miami-Dade public schools before being hired as chief operating officer of Doral College.
Diaz helped craft two signature education laws that shaped education policy. HB 7069, among other things, created a new Schools of Hope grant program aimed at attracting high-performing charter schools to struggling areas. And HB 7055 created two scholarship programs: one for victims of bullying and violence and the other for struggling elementary school readers. The legislation also expanded a program giving principals more flexibility and greater authority over staffing, the curriculum and the budget.
Diaz was also instrumental in expanding the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students and the Gardiner Scholarship, which provide education savings accounts for students with special needs. Step Up For Students, which administers the scholarship programs, publishes this blog.
Now, as he takes the helm as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Diaz remains hopeful that the upcoming session may provide further opportunities to expand school choice options for more families. He also said school safety remains a top concern.
After the Parkland school shooting in February, Gov. Rick Scott signed a law increasing security measures at schools. The Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act requires all public schools to hire a school resource officer (SRO), a sheriff’s deputy or trained employee to carry a gun on campus.
Florida charter school officials are struggling to comply with the state’s new campus safety mandates, and Diaz said he supports expanding access to a guardian certification program that requires sheriffs’ department to train school personnel. But he does not support the recommendation of Marjory Stoneman Douglas Public Safety Commission chairman Bob Gualtieri, who is Pinellas County’s sheriff. Gualtieri wants to equip school teachers with guns.
“Let’s get away from the arming teachers conversation, and let’s have a real conversation about how we provide special personnel to protect these kids,” Diaz said.
While some have speculated the House and Senate will differ on school choice issues in the upcoming legislative session beginning in March, Diaz disagrees.
“I think we are all in agreement that we need to do what is best for students in the state,” he said.
“The biggest challenge facing education is the fact the state continues to grow, and funding is going to be a challenge year to year because of the growing cost of health care and other items in the state budget. We need to continue to figure out how to effectively fund and provide opportunities for students.”
Diaz sees every session as an opportunity to be a game changer.
“I think the one difference in this session is you have a governor-elect who is going to come into office and has been clear about his bold stance on education,” Diaz said. “When you have that, it provides more of an opportunity for those changes to happen.”