Florida Politics

Lawmakers — privately — cut $200M deal to help kids in failing schools

Lawmakers secretly struck a tentative compromise Thursday on one of the most consequential education reforms of the 2017 session — a $200 million program to help students who attend perpetually failing K-12 public schools in Florida.

Specifics of the proposed deal were not released, as some of it was still being finalized, House and Senate pre-K-12 education budget chairmen said late Thursday. But the general description of the agreement was enough to earn initial support from some House Democrats, who had — until very recently — staunchly opposed the concept.

“We’re happy they listened to us and a lot of the ideas we had in committee,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, who helped negotiate the compromise on the Democrats’ behalf. “We’re happy with the direction they’re going in.”

That direction, Jones said, involves the House seeking middle ground with what school superintendents have asked for and with the Senate’s more blended proposal: Provide more financial aid and other resources to failing traditional public schools first, before implementing more drastic options, such as inviting competition from new charter schools.

A session priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Republicans dubbed their original $200 million plan “schools of hope” — in reference to the specialized charter schools that they wanted to entice to Florida and set up as alternatives to struggling neighborhood schools.

The legislation (HB 5105) passed the House earlier this month against unanimous Democratic opposition. Across nine hours of committee and floor debate, Democrats argued Republicans were narrow-minded in seeking a solution to failing schools by relying almost exclusively on new charter schools as their saving grace — rather than looking for models in existing traditional public schools that managed to turn themselves around.

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

Senators, meanwhile, only last week started to vet their more comprehensive version of “schools of hope.” They unveiled their written proposal over two days starting on April 17 and have publicly spent only 90 minutes on it so far, as legislative leaders looked ahead to budget negotiations for an expected compromise.

Thursday’s agreement was struck behind closed doors before any public budget conference meetings began late Thursday, despite House and Senate leaders vowing “unprecedented openness” this session and on this education policy, in particular.

House and Senate leaders had also pledged public comment would be taken at budget conference meetings, so that Floridians would be able to weigh in on the pending legislation — but given that a general deal has been reached, it’s unclear how meaningful that opportunity will be for the public. (There was no chance offered for public comment during the first pre-K-12 education budget conference committee meeting Thursday night, when the House made its initial offer on budget numbers.)

The “schools of hope” proposal will likely evolve in the next few days, when the compromise language will be released. But once it reaches the House and Senate floors early next week, it cannot be amended because it’s tied to the overall budget.

MORE: “Senate committee spends all of 9 minutes considering major change in schools policy”

“I think we’re 80 percent there” on a final compromise, Corcoran told the Herald/Times on Thursday evening. “As it’s getting worked a little bit, I think that — to the extent that we get to a final product, we’ll have a lot of Democrats vote for it, too. I think they liked it to begin with, they just wanted to make it better, and now they’re there.”

Corcoran and other House members involved in the legislation and budget talks said the fresh emphasis on helping struggling traditional public schools with extra funding and resources came after input from superintendents and principals. Administrators at some of Florida’s largest school districts, including Miami-Dade and Duval counties, 10 days ago came out hard against the original “schools of hope” plan.

District leaders said the House concept was unproven and would bypass the power of school boards. Instead, they asked for a chance to have a cut of the $200 million themselves to bring innovative strategies and wraparound services to their struggling schools — which now appears to be included in the compromise.

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho met with lawmakers in Tallahassee on Thursday about the district’s priorities, with “schools of hope” at the top of the list. He said he was “encouraged” after meeting with Miami Republican Rep. Michael Bileca, the House education policy chairman.

“There’s a clear intent of providing support and a different approach to schools that have been fragile for a number of years,” Carvalho said, adding that he and Bileca “explored an expansion of what ‘schools of hope’ could be and the types of entities [such as school districts] that could provide support under this appropriation, under this legislative concept.”

Carvalho said he suggested that lawmakers look not just at specialized charters, but “open the door for competition also for school systems that have entities of their own creation that have the same level of independence, the same latitude that bypasses a lot of the hurdles that Tallahassee [the Legislature] usually injects. Let us compete side by side.”

“What I heard today was very encouraging,” Carvalho added. “There was an open dialogue about a clear possibility that that would be considered.”

Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman, said earlier Thursday that House leaders have had “endless conversations with the Democrats and with districts” to hash out a compromise on the bill.

Notably, though, the agreement Jones described is a departure from House Republicans’ rhetoric when HB 5105 was being considered in the chamber. Several times, Republicans all-but wrote off the idea of giving more aid to traditional public schools — as House Democrats, superintendents and now the Senate have called for. House Republicans said those neighborhood schools had their shot to improve but didn’t.

“It’s already been proven that giving them more money in that classroom doesn’t fix the problem. We have to completely change the way we do things and have a new approach,” Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala said after the legislation was unveiled in late March.

The House bill included provisions to expedite turnaround strategies for failing schools, so that students wouldn’t languish in them for years, as can happen now — so expanding that aspect of the bill wasn’t a stretch, Diaz said.

“We’re not trying to shut the districts out,” Diaz told the Herald/Times. “What we’re trying to do is to provide a framework where they have the opportunity to turn around, but in a reasonable time, and if that means providing more options within that time-frame, that’s the whole idea.”

“But at the same time, it has to be a real change that is made,” he added. “You can’t keep doing the same thing and just say, ‘pour more money into the same thing and we’ll turn it around.’ 

Herald/Times reporter Steve Bousquet contributed to this story.

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