Education reformers experience lackluster legislative session

Mar 16, 2012

Unlike past years the education agenda took a backseat to more pressing issues—mainly the once-a-decade redistricting process. But at times, the annual fight over funding, vouchers, prayers and charter schools rose to the forefront. Lynn Hatter takes a look at what passed, what didn’t and what’s sure to come again next year.

One of the biggest fights was over a plan that would have allowed 51-percent of parents with children in a failing public school to convert it into a charter. The issue lurked quietly in the background for most of the session, but blew up in the last few weeks. However, on the last day, it was killed in the Senate, after passing in the House. Republican Senator Nancy Detert expressed concerns over doing too much—too fast.

 “We’ve been changing everything year after year and we never give it time to gel.”

 Detert’s “reform fatigue” was evident in other hotly debated bills—like one that would have let charter schools tap into local school construction money. Lawmakers decided to scrap that idea and look for alternative funding sources.

Public schools did fare a bit better this year in terms of overall funding. At the start of session, Governor Rick Scott called for an extra billion dollars for the state’s K-12 system.  He got about $845 million. But some groups, like the Florida Education Association, say that’s still not enough to make up for the 1.35-billion dollar cut the schools took the year before. Mark Pudlow is the union’s spokesman.

 “I think the biggest issue remains and will remain properly financing our public schools. Lawmakers are saying it’s better to invest in charter schools, corporate vouchers, member projects or tax breaks for corporations. Well then, kids suffer.”

 The FEA didn’t fare too badly this year. It managed to defeat a proposal that would have allowed a competing organization to represent teachers in lawsuits. That other group, the Professional Educator’s Network, argued it wasn’t a union and therefore shouldn’t be treated like one. But that proposal failed.

 “This is something we’re probably going to see in the future. If you want to be a union and you want to have access to teachers and you want to represent them in some ways, then you have to follow the rules that are set up for everybody.”

The union also claimed victory in the defeat of the parent-trigger bill. But it lost other key battles. For example, the legislature approved the expansion of the state’s corporate tax scholarship program, which the union has long argued takes money away from traditional public schools.  Commonly called school vouchers, the program gives businesses tax credits for donating money to a scholarship fund that sends students from failing public schools to private ones. The expansion of the program was a win for the Foundation for Florida’s future, a school-choice advocacy group created by former Governor Jeb Bush. Jaryn Emhoff is its spokeswoman and she says overall, it was a good year.

 “I think session was actually very good for education reform. There were a lot of unsure expectations going into it—it’s an election year, there’s redistricting. The economy is improving, but slowly, and we had a big year last year.”

The Foundation scored wins with a bill that expands the Florida virtual school to elementary grades, along with a proposal that lets homeschoolers participate in public school sports. Emhoff says she’s especially pleased with the legislature for signing off on a measure that will let public school students get through their school faster.

 “It’s an exciting bill because it really puts students in the driver’s seat and making sure they’re not bored. You, student, may be really good at math, and you may be able to master the content and the information and the skills in a shorter time than your peers, and there’s no reason why you should spend the rest of your time sitting there.”

The Foundation also backed the parent-trigger bill, which failed. And while state Lawmakers may have shied away from that measure and the charter funding proposal, they found “inspiration” in another bill that lets school districts craft a policy for inspirational messages. Critics of the bill call it a thinly-veiled attempt to reintroduce school prayer. Something that didn’t have a prayer, was a proposal for advertising on school buses. For the bills that didn’t make it, the advocacy groups are hoping for better luck next year.