Florida Politics

Senate committee spends all of 9 minutes considering major change in schools policy

Nine minutes.

That’s how long senators on the Appropriations Committee spent this week to hurriedly describe, amend and approve their version of one of the most high-profile, substantial and costly education policy changes the Legislature will enact this year affecting K-12 public schools.

Senators did not even debate their pair of bills Tuesday that counter a House Republican-approved $200 million “schools of hope” incentive for specialized charter schools. The one person from the public who wanted to weigh in was cut off after 56 seconds.

That’s not the picture of open, thorough and public debate that Republican Senate leaders painted a couple of weeks ago when they agreed to send the House bill directly into budget negotiations and vowed transparency in those talks with the House.

Senate leaders had pledged they would have enough time — and would take the time — to properly vet the House “schools of hope” legislation and develop their own ideas on how to improve educational opportunities and services for students, mostly poor and minorities, who attend perpetually failing neighborhood schools.

“These issues have been discussed around here, and we’re just putting them in the conference posture,” Senate Appropriations chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told reporters Tuesday, referencing the pending budget negotiations process and dismissing the lack of time spent on the Senate’s “schools of hope” bills.

The Senate had general, conceptual conversations earlier in session on how to help kids in failing schools, as did the House. But substantive consideration of an actual policy proposal by the Senate has been extremely limited, compared with the airing the House gave its priority bill.

Senators, so far, have spent barely 90 minutes vetting their legislative proposals (SB 1552 and SB 796) across three committee hearings since senators unveiled their specific policy language early last week.

In contrast, House members spent nine hours considering their bill (HB 5105) during two committee hearings and across two days of discussion, debate and voting on the House floor — about six times as long as the Senate has to date, a Herald/Times analysis found. (Through its two committee hearings alone, the House spent three-and-a-half hours on “schools of hope.”)

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

A growing number of senators are complaining about the lack of vetting their version of the legislation is getting.

“This isn’t right,” Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said after the Senate Appropriations Committee tried to take up 65 bills in just four hours on Tuesday, leaving “schools of hope” to the very end.

Brandes said that at such a break-neck speed, there is little time to discuss serious proposals or take public testimony. Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer vented similar frustration.

“A huge, massive policy change done in 10 minutes … Outrageous,” Farmer, of Lighthouse Point, said during a caucus meeting Wednesday.

Jacksonville-area Republican Sen. Aaron Bean, who is sponsoring SB 796, scored unquestioned committee approval for what he called a “very small” 16-page amendment that replaced his original bill and expanded it with new language not vetted by a prior policy committee.

“I would love to have more time, but unfortunately the Constitution only gives us 60 days. It’s just the nature of it,” he said Wednesday.

Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee — a former Senate president who has been outspoken and critical of the rushed consideration that several bills got this session — said he would have preferred to have the Senate’s “schools of hope” bills developed over time in the Education Committee, of which he is a member.

“I think that maybe just knowing how hard [Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes] was going to push for certain things came as a bit of a surprise, so we weren’t procedurally quite ready to get to some of this stuff,” Lee said. But he added: “I think they can still get to where they need to get.”

Tallahassee Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a former schools superintendent who is heavily involved in the Senate’s education policy, said he didn’t think the chamber was “rushing through” the legislation.

“A lot of work has gone on before we show up to committee,” he said Wednesday. “We do our homework on these bills so when we get in there, we pretty well have our minds made up in terms of where we’re going and what we think the priorities are.”

He acknowledged that “clearly at yesterday’s Appropriations meeting, we could have used more time.” But he said: “We can air it (the bills); we can do it here on the floor. But I would encourage that we need public input on this issue.”

MORE: “ ‘Unprecedented openness’ slams shut as Corcoran, Negron forge secret budget deal”

By ushering forward their “schools of hope” bills, senators said they’re positioning the bills to be part of conference committee talks on the annual budget.

Those negotiations — public meetings for which have yet to begin, amid deadlock between Negron and Corcoran — largely take place privately. Negron and Corcoran vowed to have public input at conference meetings this year; however, those meetings can be announced with only an hour’s notice, and lawmakers historically have arrived with pre-determined offers in hand. The session is scheduled to end May 5.

The Senate’s legislation in response to the House “schools of hope” plan calls for providing community resources for failing traditional schools and also for attracting new specialized charter schools. The House bill focuses on creating an incentive for certain charter school operators to establish “schools of hope” — what the Senate is calling “high-impact” charter schools — that would compete with the failing neighborhood schools.

Herald/Times staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.

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