Gov. Rick Scott announced that he will sign a controversial education bill. CARL JUSTE Miami Herald
Gov. Rick Scott announced that he will sign a controversial education bill. CARL JUSTE Miami Herald

Education

Governor signs controversial schools bill into law

By Kristen M. Clark and Kyra Gurney

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

June 15, 2017 10:30 AM

Gov. Rick Scott signed a charter-school-friendly, $419 million K-12 public schools bill that has incited a groundswell of criticism and opposition statewide, rejecting arguments from traditional public school advocates.

“When I was growing up, I had access to a good quality education, and every Florida child should have the same opportunity,” Scott said before signing the bill at Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando. “Florida’s K-12 education system is so important to the future of our children and our state, and we will never stop looking for ways to improve how our students learn and achieve.”

The governor was accompanied by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., who championed the legislation.

The bill will make it easier for privately managed charter schools to further expand in Florida and to receive additional taxpayer funding to boost their operations. It also includes a wide range of other provisions including daily school recess for most elementary school students and $30 million in extra funding to expand a voucher program that helps kids with disabilities.

The bill received broad support from House Republicans, school choice proponents — including charter school operators, whose companies would directly benefit from the legislation — and conservative political groups, such as two affiliated with the industrialist Koch brothers.

But advocates of traditional public education — including superintendents statewide, almost all elected school boards, and parent groups and teachers unions — pressed the governor to veto the legislation.

They are concerned about a provision that will force districts to share with charter schools millions of local tax dollars earmarked for school construction, which critics argue will further diminish traditional public schools.

The real outrage should be that we are the richest country in the world and we have failure factories.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes

Many critics also dislike a new $140 million “Schools of Hope” program that is Corcoran’s answer to perpetually failing public schools. It primarily would subsidize specialized charter schools to set up in mostly low-income areas and encourage them to directly compete with struggling neighborhood schools.

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, explains why the House wants to invest $200 million to bring in high-performing charter schools as "schools of hope" to serve low-income areas in Florida that have perpetually failing traditi

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Accompanying Scott on a “Victory Tour” of the state on Tuesday, Corcoran blamed the need for reform on school districts that spend more on construction than on helping students in struggling schools.

“They’re building $40 million Taj Mahal buildings up and down the state and we’re saying: focus on the beautiful minds, not beautiful buildings,” he said. Corcoran denied that the bill will divert money from traditional schools to fund charter schools, some of which are operated by for-profit management companies.

“The real outrage shouldn’t be that we’re funding ‘Schools of Hope,’ ” Corcoran said. “The real outrage should be that we are the richest country in the world and we have failure factories.”

Corcoran, on the final day of session, heralded HB 7069 as “one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida,” but opponents immediately organized grassroots efforts to demand Scott veto it. Supporters, too, rallied their troops in response.

For instance, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho — a top critic of the bill — hosted town hall meetings to educate county residents on the potential impacts of the bill, as well as lawmakers’ decision to boost per-pupil spending by only by $24 per student.

The small increase in per-pupil funding was something Scott also disagreed with. The governor ordered legislators back to Tallahassee in early June for a three-day special session to work out a new budget for public schools, among other items. The Legislature voted to boost spending by $100 per student over this school year, bringing the total K-12 budget to $20.6 billion.

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

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Meanwhile, in an effort to amplify the perception of support for HB 7069, conservative advocacy groups and school choice organizations stepped up letter-writing campaigns and phone banks asking Scott to sign the bill.

Some Miami-Dade charter schools even offered incentives to parents and, reportedly, extra credit to students if they openly supported the bill — actions that critics have called “manufactured” support.

RELATED: Charter schools to parents: Write to Gov. Scott, get volunteer hours

The aggressive campaigns for and against the bill escalated after HB 7069 narrowly cleared the Legislature on the final day of session. It easily passed the Republican-heavy House, 73-36, but it barely squeaked through the more moderately divided Senate. Senators approved it 20-18, one vote shy of killing it.

The manner in which the bill was cobbled together in secret by lawmakers in the final days of session also attracted intense scrutiny, with Scott himself calling the lack of transparency troubling.

The massive bill — which officially clocks in at 274 pages in its final form — was crafted behind closed doors by House Republicans and unveiled three days before the end of an extended session, with no opportunity for public input and no chance for lawmakers to amend it before the May 8 vote on the 2017-18 budget package.

MORE: $419M schools bill headed to Gov. Scott, after barely surviving Senate vote

Senate Republicans, who reluctantly acquiesced to the process, said Corcoran insisted the bill be orchestrated as it was in order to lump together dozens of policy proposals that have nothing to do with the annual spending — such as a measure that requires daily elementary school recess, except for at charter schools. Corocoran denied there was political strategy in doing that.

HB 7069 also allocates $30 million to expand the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher program named after former Senate President Andy Gardiner that helps students with disabilities pay for alternative education options. The program provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students and has grown so quickly that organizers say they need more money to fill the need.

But expansion of the Gardiner Scholarship was not included in the House’s original version of HB 7069 or in its original budget. The Senate, however, included $100 million in its budget for the program and only during budget negotiations with the House did the House agree to finance the program — but at the lower $30 million level — and wove the funding into the controversial HB 7069.

Opponents blasted the strategy as an attempt to use vulnerable children as “pawns” to gain support for the controversial legislation.

“Once again, the legislature is playing upon public sympathies by using the Gardiner scholarship as a pawn to ensure the controversial expansion of charter schools via the “Schools of Hope,” wrote Suzette Lopez, the mother of a special needs child in Miami on the blog, Accountabaloney.

In an opinion piece with Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, Diaz wrote that expansion of the Gardiner scholarship is important “to ensure every child with special needs receiving a Gardiner scholarship will continue to receive that scholarship and achieve their full potential in life.”

Corcoran and House Republicans have justified pushing the bill through at the last minute by repeatedly — and falsely — saying all of its components were already vetted by the Legislature.

MORE FROM POLITIFACT: Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran misleads about education legislation negotiations

Most — but not all — of the bill’s provisions had been discussed at least conceptually but not necessarily in the form of written legislation lawmakers voted on and not by both chambers. (The Senate, for instance, discussed its version of “Schools of Hope” for only 90 minutes prior to the final day of session.)

A Herald/Times analysis of HB 7069 also found it gleaned ideas from at least 55 bills, as well as language never before discussed or considered publicly or — in one case — that was defeated by a Senate committee.

One example of a provision that had not been publicly contemplated is a new bonus scheme whereby all “highly effective” teachers would get $1,200 in each of the next three years and all “effective” teachers could get up to $800.

“That’s new, granted — but it’s within the context of teacher bonuses,” House Pre-K-12 Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told reporters May 5 in explaining the brand-new language in HB 7069 that was part of expanding the oft-criticized “Best & Brightest” program.

But Scott’s decision may not be the last word on the controversial legislation. In a letter sent to the governor on Tuesday, Sen. Gary Farmer, a freshman Democrat from Lighthouse Point, suggested that the bill may be ripe for a legal challenge. He outlined his case for why he believes it could be challenged on the grounds that it passed illegally and called it a “monstrosity.”

Miami Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Herald writer Alexandria Bordas contributed to this report.

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, kgurney@miamiherald.com, @KyraGurney