Little ed bills could pack big punch in 2012

Jan 10, 2012

Higher education will be the main focus for the education agenda of 2012 but there’s still enough room for several other education proposals to get hearings. Lawmakers have a smaller-than usual education agenda this year, but that doesn’t mean it still won’t be filled with controversy. Lynn Hatter reports school vouchers, a parent-trigger law and a constitutional proposal on the commissioner of education are just a few of the bills that will add spark to an otherwise policy-light session.

A plan to raise the cap on the amount of money that can go into the state’s corporate tax scholarship program kicked off the first week of the 2012 legislative session. Otherwise known as school vouchers, the program gives businesses a tax break in exchange for donating money to send children in failing public schools to private ones. Opponents have long argued the program takes money away from public schools. State Senator Bill Montford, the Minority Whip, says in exchange for raising the funding cap, he wants to see private schools held to the same level of accountability as public ones- like having private school kids on scholarships take the FCAT.

 “My question is, why not hold them to the same level of accountability, of transparency as we do public schools? What’s wrong with that? Regardless of whether it’s indirect, it’s still tax dollars. Even though they didn’t come to the state, if they didn’t go that other way they would come to the state and be used by the state.”

The corporate tax scholarship increase proposal is sponsored by Republican Senator Lizabeth Benacquisto of Wellington. She’s also carrying another bill that would give parents the sole ability to decide whether perpetually failing schools should be converted into charter schools.

 “Anywhere in our communities where schools are struggling, parents have continued to come forward and say they want to have a role in the revitalization of a school and in making the education in their community better for all students not just their own, so we think it’s a good time to move that forward.”

Similar laws are already in place or are being considered in 22 other states. The proposal, called the parent-trigger also mirrors a law in Indiana that allows children with ineffective teachers to get a high performing teacher the next year.  The bill would also tell parents that they have the right to request and receive a copy of their child’s teacher evaluation. The pro-school choice lobby the Foundation for Florida’s Future is backing both proposals.

Meanwhile other groups like the Florida Association of School Boards want for more flexibility in how they run public schools. Executive Director Wayne Blanton says schools want to be free of mandates—like a proposal that would require schools to teach Disability Awareness, or a current law that requires middle schoolers to take a semester of physical education.

 “The Florida legislature needs to give local school boards and superintendents more flexibility because we’re the ones closest to the students at the local level. I’m getting a good feeling this year from the legislature about giving us a substantial amount of flexibility to go with some increased funding.”

Governor Rick Scott has called for a billion dollar increase to the education budget. Most of that money will come from Medicaid cuts, putting many Democrats in a Catch-22. But House Speaker Dean Cannon says he’s not sure lawmakers will be able to find the money for the governor’s education increase.

 “We share his goal, but it’s too soon to tell whether we’ll be able to fund education at the level he’s targeted, which is a billion dollars although I certainly hope we can get there. But we’ll have to wait and see what the revenue estimators say on Thursday and find out what we have to work with before we assemble the final budget.”

The legislature will also consider a repeat effort to allow advertising on school buses. It will also consider tweaking last year’s teacher merit pay bill.

But one of the more controversial debates lawmakers will have this session centers on the Commissioner of Education. Republican State Senator Joe Negron is sponsoring a constitutional amendment proposal that would return the education commissioner to a cabinet post and require elections. Right now, the commissioner is appointed by the State Board of Education. But Governor Rick Scott is staunchly against the move.

“I don't believe we ought to have an elected commissioner of education. I think we should do it the way it's working now, because it is working and we're improving every year."

Meanwhile, many lawmakers will be saying good-bye to the legislature this year due to term limits. And a favorite place for retired legislators is the state’s college and university systems. But a wide-ranging ethics bill by powerful Jacksonville Republican Senator John Thrasher would bar lawmakers from working or having contracts with those schools for two years after leaving the Legislature.

The most noticeable case in the legislative-higher education overlap is disgraced former House Speaker Ray Sansom who got millions in the state budget for Northwest Florida State College. He was later hired by the school on the same day he was sworn in as House speaker. He and other officials were indicted by a grand jury, but charges were later dropped.