State Politics

Florida Senate’s version of ‘schools of hope’ prioritizes help for traditional schools

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, unveiled the Senate’s version of the “schools of hope” on Tuesday, which emphasizes offering more resources to failing traditional schools rather than automatically incentivizing new charter schools to come in and compete.
Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, unveiled the Senate’s version of the “schools of hope” on Tuesday, which emphasizes offering more resources to failing traditional schools rather than automatically incentivizing new charter schools to come in and compete. kclark@miamiherald.com

A top Florida senator on Tuesday rolled out his version of a comprehensive plan to help students who attend perpetually failing public schools in Florida — proposing to offer additional resources to those traditional schools, rather than emphasizing incentives for new charter schools to come in and compete with them as the House wants to do.

Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, unveiled his alternative to the House’s “schools of hope” legislation by piggy-backing his proposal on to an unrelated education bill (SB 1552) that originally dealt only with expanding bonuses for top teachers and principals.

Simmons’ revised bill gives “schools of hope” a companion measure in the Senate two and a half weeks before session is scheduled to end. Doing that provides senators a way to formally discuss the proposal and vet their ideas for it ahead of budget negotiations. House and Senate leaders last week agreed to send “schools of hope” to conference committee, all-but ensuring some form of it will become law in 2017-18.

We’re going to provide a mechanism for the school districts — and the resources to the school districts — to solve the problem. ... These teachers, these administrators, deserve to fight the fight to make the difference.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs

The House’s measure expedites turnaround strategies for failing schools but focuses mostly on creating a $200 million incentive plan to attract high-performing, specialized charter schools that would essentially compete with struggling neighborhood schools by offering students in those schools an alternative. The Senate doesn’t want to go that route right away.

Simmons’ legislation includes some of the “schools of hope” language but proposes first giving failing schools some extra help — something House Republicans have largely discounted, saying those schools have already had such opportunities and it hasn’t worked.

MORE: “House fights over $200 million incentive for charter schools, but bill passes”

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

One of the hallmarks of Simmons’ bill is the creation of a category of “turnaround schools,” which would be struggling neighborhood schools that would have access to extra services or benefits, such as being able to:

▪ extend the school day by one hour;

▪ team up with a local non-profit organization to give students access to wraparound services, such as healthcare, after-school programs, drug prevention programs, college prep and food and clothing banks;

▪ and securing more authority for principals to govern those schools with more flexibility.

“The concept is: Enough is enough and that we’re not going to accept the continual failure to these students by us,” Simmons said. “We’re going to provide a mechanism for the school districts — and the resources to the school districts — to solve the problem.”

“These teachers, these administrators, deserve to fight the fight to make the difference,” he added.

Simmons had foreshadowed his plan last week to the Herald/Times when he praised the House for coming up with “schools of hope” as a concept but said the Senate would want to emphasize help for traditional schools.

“The priority is to take what we have. I think it’s impossible to ask charter schools to come in and take on the challenge, by themselves, right now, without any other assistance,” Simmons said Tuesday but added that charter schools should be “part and parcel to this solution.”

“There will be a place for them in this,” he said.

Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, explains his concerns with a proposal from House Republicans that’s intended to help students in failing traditional schools by attracting charter schools they c

House Republicans in charge of education policy and funding said last week they’d be willing to consider what the Senate proposed.

“I would love to hear their ideas,” House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, had said. “We’re trying to get to the same end; it just depends on what it is, but we’re open to listening to ideas.”

Simmons filed his 17-page amendment to SB 1552 about 45 minutes before his budget committee convened Tuesday afternoon, giving lawmakers and audience members little time to digest what he was proposing. That drew criticism from both the public and the committee.

We got to fix these rules because there’s just not adequate time for public debate in this process anymore.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa

“We’re really concerned about all these late-filed amendments, with this really large education language — making it impossible for parents and citizens to give appropriate testimony to these bills,” said Catherine Baer, of the Tea Party Network and Common Ground, an education advocacy group. “Hopefully the next step in conferencing will be more open to public testimony and not so symbolic.”

“I share the concerns,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican and former Senate president. “We got to fix these rules because there’s just not adequate time for public debate in this process anymore.”

MORE: “Legislature vows transparency on negotiating education policy. History says otherwise.”

After 40 minutes of discussion — in which public comment was limited by time constraints — the committee unanimously advanced Simmons’ bill, calling it a good starting point but desiring a more thorough vetting of it.

“It’s about time where we put our money where our mouth is and recognize what the true problem is. ... What we have are schools that are in need, students that are in need,” said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee.

The House plan passed with only Republican support last week, amid intense criticism from Democrats who, like Simmons, said the traditional schools shouldn’t be written off. Several large school districts, including Miami-Dade County, have also come out against “schools of hope” this week.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

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