Every level of Florida’s public education system — affecting kindergarten to university students — faces some measure of drastic reform in the upcoming legislative session that begins Tuesday.
Just some of what’s on the table:
▪ “Dramatic” expansions of school choice alternatives in K-12 public schools and the state’s voucher-like scholarship programs are a top priority of Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran. His education chairmen also have grand goals of narrowing the achievement gap for the state’s lowest-performing schools by attracting and expanding innovative educational options.
▪ The operations of Florida’s 28 public colleges could be reined in over what some senators see as unnecessary competition with the state’s public universities, sparking a need for more oversight.
▪ And the State University System itself faces a changed future as Republican Senate President Joe Negron seeks to make Florida’s 12 public universities globally competitive with the likes of the University of Virginia or the University of Michigan.
It’s a bold, sweeping agenda for both the House and Senate — intentionally so, Republican leaders say.
You have to make dramatic changes if you’re going to have dramatic results.
House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah
“We understand that it’s extremely ambitious; I think we wouldn’t have it any other way. There is a clear opportunity this year,” House pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said.
“You have to make dramatic changes if you’re going to have dramatic results,” he added.
The higher education reforms — with the exception of the state college changes — generally seem to have little opposition, but the K-12 reforms the House envisions are likely to spark backlash from supporters of traditional public schools, such as Democrats and the state’s largest teachers union, the Florida Education Association.
However, with the 2017 session already set up to be a combative affair, there’s real potential Corcoran and Negron might get in each other’s way and that their favored education proposals might be caught in the political cross-fire.
Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, rejects that the education reforms could end up being used as leverage for negotiating — a practice that lawmakers commonly employ every year so that House and Senate leaders can eventually declare mutual success in achieving their goals before the annual 60-day session ends.
“I don’t like the horse-trading stuff; that ends up in bad policy,” said Corcoran, who aims to “change the culture” of the Florida Legislature. “We’re not going to do any of that. ... I can’t — we [the House] can’t — govern the behavior of other entities, but I think that a lot of times all it takes is one chamber to say: ‘This is how we’ll behave.’ ”
But Negron — a Stuart Republican known for his diligent and wonkish approach to policy and the legislative process — won’t rule it out: “As Senator [Anitere] Flores says: ‘Everything is related to everything.’ So I’ll leave it at that,” he said.
House education committees have spent much of their pre-session workweeks holding discussions on key issues in preparation for what Diaz described as “a very aggressive agenda when it comes to school reform.”
Atop that list: Breaking the cycle of generational poverty and closing achievement gaps in failing or low-performing schools.
“It’s not OK that we have kids graduating out of our system that have never seen a school better than a ‘C.’ It’s not OK that we have a chronic amount of schools that are perpetually in a turnaround status,” House education policy chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, told an audience in Tallahassee earlier this year.
“We believe school choice is a vital component in this discussion,” Bileca added, “and we believe there are wonderful models out there, both in the state and outside of the state.”
One of those models often cited by Bileca and Diaz is the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) school in Jacksonville — a non-profit public charter school that’s part of a nationwide network of schools that predominantly serve minority students and those who are part of free and reduced-price lunch programs.
“How do we attack generational poverty directly? By creating some sort of pathway to bring in those nationally renowned, high-impact charters or alternative schools,” Diaz said. “That’s going to cost some money because there are some wraparound services and extra hours and things like that. But right now there is political will and determination ... to do that and to give those kids another solution.”
Corcoran and House Republicans are also big fans of the state’s controversial voucher-like scholarship programs, and they’re intent on expanding those this session.
Legislation (HB 15) has been proposed that would allocate $200 million annually for the Gardiner Scholarships, which help children with disabilities pay for specialty educational services and therapies.
And the bill would increase payments to recipients of the Florida Tax Credit Scholarships — which help mostly minority and poor students attend private schools by offering dollar-for-dollar tax breaks to businesses that donate to organizations that distribute the scholarships. (The highly contentious program recently survived a legal challenge from the FEA when the Florida Supreme Court ruled the union didn’t have standing to sue.)
Meanwhile, some of the Senate’s reforms to Florida’s public colleges and universities already made headway in advance of session, but not without some hiccups.
The cornerstone of Negron’s higher ed package is actually teed up to be one of the first bills the Senate votes on during the first week of session. But his proposed reforms for Florida’s 28 state colleges (SB 374) face resistance — even from within his Republican caucus.
We should be at the very top of our game in our state university and college system; we should raise expectations, and that’s what we’re doing.
Senate higher education budget chairman Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton
Most controversially, Negron wants to restrict the colleges’ future ability to add four-year degrees. Miami Dade College offers about 20 four-year degrees, and Broward College has about 10.
Bradenton Republican Sen. Bill Galvano — the higher ed budget chairman who’s shepherding Negron’s education priorities — said at a hearing last month there was concern about “wasteful duplication” with degrees offered by the state universities.
But Galvano was met with instant push-back — Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president, said the bill had “big problems” — so it’s likely that the proposal will face some major revisions before it reaches the floor.
Comparatively, the main thrust of Negron’s higher ed reforms sailed through Senate committees before session with ringing endorsements, even with some changes.
SB 2 includes a range of reforms, such as expanding financial aid opportunities — like Bright Futures scholarships — to help students better afford college; launching new programs to recruit and retain top faculty; and changing the operations of the universities themselves.
For instance, the institutions will have to meet new accountability metrics, which are linked to performance funding, so that they promote on-time graduation for students, and each university will have to implement block-tuition rates by fall 2018.
“We should be at the very top of our game in our state university and college system; we should raise expectations, and that’s what we’re doing,” Galvano said when the legislation was approved by the Appropriations Committee in late February.
The House hasn’t taken up its version of Negron’s higher ed package yet — but Corcoran said that’s not an indication it’s not a priority. He told reporters it will be considered soon after session begins.