State Politics

Senate backs off defunding controversial schools bill, not wanting conflict with House

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs
Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs AP

Florida senators wanting a second crack at stopping a contentious $419 million education reform bill that narrowly passed the Legislature last month were unsuccessful on Thursday in defunding it to redirect the dollars to general K-12 public school spending.

Broward County Democratic Sen. Gary Farmer led the charge to undo HB 7069, after Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons — earlier passionately defiant — backed off his plans to force lawmakers to revisit the legislation during a three-day special session, even though it’s not on the Legislature’s restricted agenda.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes, and his Republican caucus have dismissed the Senate’s effort as a waste of time and said even if the Senate approved changes to the HB 7069 funding, they wouldn’t support them. The bill is a top priority of Corcoran’s.

It’s about to be signed. This is your last chance.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point

But Senate Democrats cast Thursday as the day for the Senate to stand up for itself and “redo” the May 8 result when the legislation passed by one vote, 20-18.

Farmer
Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point Scott Keeler TAMPA BAY TIMES

“I know many of you voted in a certain way because you had an understanding that this bill wasn’t going to be signed. Guess what? It’s about to be signed. This is your last chance,” said Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, who has been among the most vocal critics of the bill.

After the regular session ended, traditional public education advocates rallied for Gov. Rick Scott to veto the bill, which heavily favors private charter school operators through additional funding and friendly regulations.

Despite that outcry, several senators expect Scott to sign the bill if the Legislature approves the economic development and tourism funding Scott wants out of the special session.

MORE: “Senator will try to defund controversial schools bill”

Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, had planned to use the session to seek the Senate’s support for moving most of the dollars in HB 7069 into the general K-12 budget.

To build support among his colleagues, Simmons had spent the last two days sounding the alarm about HB 7069 and its “fundamental and fatal” flaws that he says would force failing traditional schools to close — and their teachers to be fired — and let private charter operators take over.

But on Thursday afternoon, he withdrew several amendments to defund HB 7069 — submitting to pressure from his Republican colleagues, who urged the Senate not to derail a special session over unrelated matters.

Simmons did so “for the greater good,” he said, but Farmer had his own amendments to continue pursuing the cause.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said Simmons’ and Farmer’s idea to redirect the HB 7069 money “has some merit” but it wasn’t worth further acrimony with the House.

I appreciate the idea of the Senate standing up for what we believe, but we need to be mindful of trying to accomplish something as well.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater

“I appreciate the idea of the Senate standing up for what we believe, but we need to be mindful of trying to accomplish something as well,” Latvala said. “Reaching in and taking that [HB 7069 money] back and bringing that into the [K-12 budget] at this point in time is something we considered — and in the spirit to arrive at a solution, we made the decision not to go that direction.”

With no other amendments approved, the Senate is poised to vote Friday on a plan it settled on earlier Thursday to add $215 million to K-12 general funding on July 1 using money freed up from recent Scott vetoes. The House will also vote on its bill then, a similar proposal but one that wouldn’t require overriding Scott’s veto of the previously approved K-12 budget as the Senate did Wednesday.

MORE: “Senate, House seeking compromise on school funding”

The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for one to be sent to Scott for his approval.

Several Republicans, like Latvala, urged the chamber to reject Farmer’s amendment to strip HB 7069 of its funding — which failed 15-22, after Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, initially deemed it as having passed on a voice vote.

It hurts to sit here and hear some of the debate, ‘we’ll do it next year,’ ‘we can’t do it’ for whatever reason. It’s not right, senators, and you all know that’s the truth. If we are the Senate, we should act like the Senate.

Sen. René García, R-Hialeah

Hialeah Republican René García joined Democrats in backing Farmer. Although not mentioning him by name, García took a jab at Corcoran by accusing him of supporting “corporate welfare” for private charter operators while railing against it in other cases.

“Little by little, there has been the erosion of the public school education funding system to ensure that more money goes in another direction,” García said in an unusually fiery speech. “If you’re against corporate welfare, it should be against corporate welfare across the board.”

He also said the Senate on Thursday “had an opportunity to fix [HB 7069] and we chose not to.”

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

“It hurts to sit here and hear some of the debate, ‘we’ll do it next year,’ ‘we can’t do it’ for whatever reason,” García said. “It’s not right, senators, and you all know that’s the truth. If we are the Senate, we should act like the Senate.”

But, “to vote for this is to vote for us to go home, to not get anything done,” said Sen. Doug Broxson, a Gulf Breeze Republican who was a swing vote in helping HB 7069 pass last month. On May 8, he criticized the bill but still supported it.

Reiterating why on Thursday, he said “we’re committed to solving this issue” and fixing the legislation in the 2018 session, assuming Scott signs it into law. (Scott does not yet have the bill on his desk. Corcoran has delayed sending it, likely as political leverage.)

Farmer said the Senate shouldn’t trust the House to fix HB 7069, because the House forced the bill on them by unveiling it less than three days before lawmakers had to vote up-or-down on it with no chance to change it.

“Why would we ever think that that chamber would go along with any fix next year?” he asked. “That’s a unicorn, folks, it doesn’t exist. It’s not happening next year and it may never happen.”

corcoran diaz bileca fl house
From the left, Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., R-Hialeah, and Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, talk on the House floor March 22, 2017. Diaz and Bileca were lead negotiators in crafting the final version of HB 7069, which was a top legislative priority of Corcoran’s. Florida House of Representatives

House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, told reporters earlier Thursday he would support changing HB 7069 next session “if there are legitimate fixes that we can agree on doing.”

For instance, he’s open to clarifying the provisions that Simmons said would force schools to close. But Diaz said that’s not what the bill does.

He said once schools earn at least two “D” or “F” grades, the Florida Department of Education would “have every discretion, within that law, to give [those failing schools] an extra year” to turn around.

“If we need to come back and clarify some of that further, I’m willing to come back in the fall and make sure the intent of the bill is what is put forth,” he said, adding that talking about HB 7069 now is “continuing to take oxygen on something not in our purview” during special session.

Diaz and Corcoran both took to Twitter as the Senate had its hourlong floor discussion on the K-12 funding and whether to take money from HB 7069.

Important context to Corcoran’s tweet referencing his “Schools of Hope” program: Only 25 of the 115 perpetually “D” and “F” traditional public schools — or 20 percent — would get any money under the bill to pay for wraparound services intended to improve their standing.

And the most money that could be dolled out in 2017-18 would be $44.5 million, a Herald/Times analysis found — leaving more than $95 million for the specialized charter schools to come in, compete with and supplant those failing neighborhood schools.

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

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

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