TALLAHASSEE -- Not long after the 2014 legislative session came to a close Friday, Senate President Don Gaetz said it had been “a good year for education.”
Indeed, K-12 education came out a big winner.
Lawmakers simplified the complicated school grading formula. They created new scholarship accounts for children with special needs. And they directed a record-high $11 billion in state funding to the K-12 education system.
“Florida’s schools did very, very well,” said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican and former Okaloosa County schools superintendent.
Democrats were also pleased with the results — for the most part.
They said Republicans had been forced to strike a balance between expanding school choice and appeasing public-school supporters.
“It’s an election year,” said Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat. “That’s what it all boils down to.”
Funding for education, which had taken a hit in recent years, saw a positive change. The per-student funding level, $6,937, represented an increase of $176 from last year. But it still fell short of the $7,126 each student received in 2007-08.
An additional $40 million was set aside for technology upgrades — a priority for both chambers.
Lawmakers also gave school districts $50 million for construction and maintenance from the Public Education Capital Outlay trust fund. Traditional public schools had not received any money from the account in three years.
The state budget did not, however, ease the penalties school districts face for failing to comply with constitutionally mandated limits on class size, as school districts would have liked. And it did not give districts extra money to provide additional instruction at low-performing schools.
As in years past, the education policy debates were often heated.
Lawmakers agreed to simplify to the school grading formula, which some parents and policy experts said had gotten too complicated.
They decided not to punish the school that receive failing grades in 2014-15. But Republicans would not approve the three-year transition that school boards, superintendents, teachers and parent groups had requested.
Elected officials also declined to tinker with the new Florida Standards, education benchmarks based on the national Common Core State Standards. Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, had filed a bill asking lawmakers to halt Florida’s transition to the benchmarks. But her effort went nowhere.
Lawmakers did, however, address parent concerns that having national standards would result in more data collection. They banned school districts from scanning students’ palms, fingers and retinas.
And they created a process through which parents could challenge controversial textbooks.
The most contentious of the bills involved school choice.
Leaders in the House and Senate started the legislative session determined to create more choices in education.
In some ways, they succeeded.
In the waning hours of session Friday night, lawmakers created a new program that would reimburse parents of special-needs students for private tutoring, therapy and educational materials. The bill also allowed a modest expansion of the controversial school voucher program.
The proposal, which met fierce opposition from public-school advocates, would allow a family of four earning up to $62,010 a year to receive a partial scholarship for their children to attend a private school. The current limit is about $44,000.
School choice advocates did not accomplish all of their goals, however. The expansion of the voucher program, known as the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program, was far less dramatic than what lawmakers originally proposed.
What’s more, a proposal that would have helped new charter schools failed to gain traction in the Senate. And charter schools received less money for construction and maintenance than they did last year: $75 million compared to $91 million.
Still, House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican who had championed the school choice bills, said the net effect was more opportunities for children.
“You always start off with a much bolder position than what you are able to get at the end,” Weatherford said. “I’m pleased with what we accomplished.”
A suite of school safety bills played a cameo role this year.
For the second year in a row, Rep. Greg Steube, R-Sarasota, filed a bill that would have allowed some teachers to carry concealed weapons on school property. The proposal had the support of the National Rifle Association, and won approval in the Florida House. The Senate, however, would not engage.
Then, there was the proposal that sought to prevent schools from taking disciplinary action if a child gnawed a breakfast pastry into the shape of a gun. Children who used their fingers or pencils as simulated weapons would also be protected.
Most people knew it as the Pop-tart bill. NRA lobbyist Marion Hammer called it the “Right-to-Be-a-Kid Bill.”
Some school systems said they didn’t need the proposed law.
It passed both chambers with little resistance.