House Speaker: 'Schools of Hope will hopefully be a beautiful thing'
By a margin of at least 3-to-1 so far, Floridians are telling Gov. Rick Scott they want him to veto a controversial $419 million K-12 public schools bill House Republicans pushed through at the end of session, according to information requested from Scott’s office Thursday evening.
In the 10 days since lawmakers approved HB 7069, the state’s Republican governor has been inundated with roughly 10,000 emails, phone calls, letters and petition signatures urging him to either sign or reject the bill.
Both sides have been vocal, but the cries from the opposition — advocates of traditional public school — have been greater in number so far, based on tallies provided by Scott’s office.
However, a pro-school choice parental group affiliated with an organization that stands to benefit from HB 7069 says it has flooded Scott’s office with thousands of emails in support of the bill — messages that are unaccounted for in the governor’s office count, because the manner in which they were sent triggered security firewalls.
Among feedback that mentioned HB 7069, Scott’s office told the Herald/Times it had received as of Thursday evening:
▪ 3,733 emails in opposition, compared to 423 in support — a nearly 9-to-1 margin against the bill and seeking a veto;
▪ 1,103 phone calls opposed, compared to 333 in support — a 3-to-1 margin against;
▪ 63 letters in favor, compared to 38 against — a less than 2-to-1 margin in support of the bill;
▪ and, a roughly similar number of individual signatures on organized online petitions, skewing in favor of the bill’s proponents: 1,587 in support of HB 7069 versus 1,412 against.
Among feedback in reference to the “education bill” and “education budget” more generally, the governor’s office said it had received:
▪ 208 phone calls against the bill and/or budget, and 25 in support — an 8-to-1 margin opposed;
▪ 915 emails against and none in support;
▪ and, three letters in favor versus one against.
All of the pro-HB 7069 phone calls, emails, letters and individual petition signatures reported by Scott’s office totaled 2,434 messages by themselves.
But the Florida Parent Network — which is run through Step Up For Students, an influential Jacksonville-based organization that administers a school voucher program that would be expanded under HB 7069 — said it alone sent 3,242 emails from supporters as of 3:30 p.m. Thursday.
The group’s “figure is from the vendor we are using to help scholarship parents and other supporters make their voices heard on this issue,” said Ron Matus, Step Up For Students’ policy and public affairs director.
Scott’s office said Friday morning all of the Florida Parent Network’s emails were blocked by a security firewall because they emanated from a single email address, resembling spam or a potential digital attack.
“Due to the manner in which these emails were sent and the security protocols protecting our email system, these messages were never received,” Scott spokeswoman Lauren Schenone said.
When factoring in the Florida Parent Network’s reported emails to what the governor’s office said it received already, the gap between supporters and opponents would narrow greatly. But those seeking a veto of HB 7069 would still hold an advantage in the sheer volume.
Scott has yet to receive HB 7069 — or the main budget act, which contains $23.7 billion in base K-12 public school spending that county school superintendents, almost all elected school boards, and parent groups and teachers unions also want vetoed. Once Scott receives each bill, he’ll have 15 days to act, so there’s still plenty of time for Floridians to offer opinions and influence Scott’s decision.
The bill’s supporters are largely confined to charter school organizations and other school choice supporters, who tout what the legislation could do to expand their movement.
Meanwhile, critics oppose the bill for myriad reasons — first for its contents, which they say would diminish traditional public schools in favor of privately managed charters. And they also abhor the way the 278-page bill was crafted in secret by House Republicans with no opportunity for public input and no chance for lawmakers to amend it before the May 8 vote on the 2017-18 budget package.
The bill’s premiere feature is $140 million for a new “Schools of Hope” program, which is largely an incentive for specialized charter schools to set up in low-income areas and essentially compete with struggling traditional public schools.
HB 7069 also allocates $234 million in teacher bonuses, both through the controversial “Best & Brightest” program and through a new scheme — whereby “highly effective” teachers would be guaranteed $1,200 bonuses for each of the next three school years and “effective” teachers could get up to $800 each year, depending on how much money is available.
Aside from the numerous other policy reforms not related to spending that are also in the bill, the legislation includes $30 million to expand the Gardiner Scholarship, a voucher program that helps students with disabilities pay for alternative education options.
Step Up For Students awards those scholarships on behalf of the state. (The group also facilitates the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship, which helps poor and often minority students afford private school. The tax-credit scholarship is not affected by HB 7069.)