Florida Politics

In last-day surprise, Legislature loads education policy into pass/fail budget

At the insistence of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, numerous major changes to education policy for Florida’s K-12 public schools — from teacher bonuses and daily recess, to testing reforms and expansions for charter schools — were crammed into a single mammoth bill on Friday, with $414 million in spending attached.

All of the policies in the the 278-page bill (HB 7069) will pass or fail as one on Monday, when lawmakers vote on the annual budget.

No changes can be made to the bill. House and Senate members have less than two days to make sense of it before they must cast an up-or-down vote.

If lawmakers’ pass it, the bill ties the hand of Republican Gov. Rick Scott. Should he want to veto the bill, he would be politically responsible for shooting down every policy in it — particularly the parent-demanded daily recess measure.

Corcoran told reporters it wasn’t political strategy to link all of the policies together, but he showed his cards a week ago when he tweeted after midnight Saturday that “the problem with recess is the governor not the Legislature.” (He pointed out Friday that that tweet ended up being true and was simply “just a week early.”)

But the sheer size and scope of the new version of HB 7069 caught many lawmakers by surprise — even those closely involved in negotiating the compromise between both parties and both chambers.

Several senators, in particular, were troubled by the process and said the bill wouldn’t automatically have their support.

“I’ve yet to read it to see what the final terms of it are,” said Altamonte Springs Republican Sen. David Simmons, who as pre-K-12 education budget chairman helped craft the compromise bill. “I don’t agree with the process of having this significant amount of policy in a conforming policy.

“It’s something that, I think, lends itself to problems and it restricts the ability of the senators to be able to change things that they would like to change, to fine-tune the policy,” Simmons said.

“It’s less than optimal, for sure,” said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa.

RELATED: “In a rush to the finish, lawmakers mostly defy priorities of Gov. Scott”

Despite repeated promises that the public and the Legislature would have time to debate the bill before it was final, the rewrite was done in private, and the final language was released online just minutes before a public meeting noticed one hour in advance. Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, discussed the bill for 10 minutes before formally accepting the compromise they’d struck in secret.

Many of the policies now in the bill — such as school recess or efforts to improve students’ civics education — have no impact on the budget.

“It’s probably a more extensive deal than I’ve ever seen before, and I’m very hopeful we don’t do that again next year,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Herald/Times.

The bill’s two main features are $140 million to help perpetually failing schools improve and $233 million toward teacher bonuses. The bonuses are not only through the “Best & Brightest” program, which lawmakers decided to keep as-is until eligibility criteria would change in 2021.

For 2018, 2019 and 2020, all “highly effective” teachers would get a $1,200 bonus and all “effective” teachers would get an $800 bonus.

“So every teacher that is not being fired is receiving a bonus for the next three years,” said Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman.

Latvala and other senators said Corcoran demanded that the K-12 policies all be lumped in to a single budget policy bill, as a condition to even begin the formal budget conference negotiations last week. Corcoran’s spokesman did not return a request for comment.

But many lawmakers were in the dark that it was what was going to happen.

Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee, said he only learned Friday that there’d be a single education budget bill that had ballooned to 278 pages.

“It’s a lot. You can’t get everything you want, and you’re not going to agree on everything,” said Jones, of West Park.

A Friday surprise, too, was the inclusion of myriad policies the Senate passed off the floor just Thursday. Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores, who had spearhead that legislation, said she was surprised to learn through “rumors” that her work would be folded into the budget bill.

Neither she nor many other lawmakers had even glimpsed the final bill by Friday evening. But Flores said one aspect in particular was disappointing: While school recess is included in the bill, it comes with a carve-out for charter schools.

Only traditional public elementary schools would have to provide 20 minutes of recess each day, not the 650 charter schools that serve more than 250,000 students.

“That is a surprise,” Flores said, saying the intention of parents who advocated for the recess policy was very clear — that it should apply to all public school students.

“So many times in this building we say how charter school students are public school students, and we shouldn’t treat them differently for other reasons. I think to treat them differently for this is disappointing,” Flores said.

Also Friday — the final day lawmakers could pass policy, although the session is extended until Monday for the budget vote — lawmakers passed out other key pieces of legislation affecting public schools.

Lawmakers sent to Scott a bill that significantly expands two of Florida’s premiere voucher programs for education that help children with disabilities pay for alternative learning options and help poor children to afford private school.

The Legislature also adopted a new law that will make it easier for parents to challenge their child’s classroom books or other lesson materials that parents deem distasteful, offensive or inappropriate for public schools. In one of the final bills that passed late Friday, lawmakers reached a compromise on a bill that would fortify students’ ability to express their religious beliefs in public school.

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