The might of Florida's powerful charter school industry was on display Monday as the panel charged with proposing amendments to the state constitution put before voters a "game changing" proposal to expand charter schools while rejecting another idea that would have made it easier for traditional schools to compete with them.
After nine hours of debate Monday, the Republican-dominated Constitution Revision Commission approved eight amendments to go before voters in November and rejected three.
The partisan group rejected a proposal that would allow high-performing school districts like Miami-Dade to be given the same flexibility that charter schools now have, a proposal that would have required Florida employers to use a new employment authorization system such as E-Verify and a proposal to close the loophole that allows pseudo write-in candidates to close a party primary.
The 37-member commission meets once every 20 years and has the power to put amendments directly on the ballot to update the state constitution. After meeting for nearly a year, the commission had until May to complete its work but instead whisked through 23 proposals that were bundled into 11 different amendments.
In addition to asking voters to give new heft to charter schools, the commission also approved proposals ranging from banning vape pens, prohibiting oil drilling in Florida waters, to requiring Miami-Dade County to elect a sheriff and Broward County to elect its tax collector.
"The process worked,'' said Carlos Beruff, the chair of the commission who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott.
The most controversial proposal was a plan to rewrite the way the state governs charter schools. Under current law, school boards approve and monitor all public schools within their counties, including privately-run charter schools that operate as public schools. Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the legislature could create a state-created entity to also control and approve charter schools, allowing charter schools to leapfrog over potential local opposition.
The idea is is opposed by school officials across the state but is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Gov. Rick Scott, who together appointed 34 of the 37 commissioners.
The charter school proposal was bundled together with two less controversial ideas: a plan to limit school board members to eight year terms, similar to the eight-year limit for the Legislature and state Cabinet and governor, and a proposed to direct the Legislature file legislation to "promote civic literacy in schools." Voters approve all of them with a single vote for any of them to take effect.
The commission also approved five other bundled amendments and two stand-alone ideas. The amendments, which needed 22 votes to be placed on the ballot, would:
- Give college scholarships to survivors of certain first responders and members of the military, require a supermajority of university and college governing boards to raise fees and establish the state college system as a constitutional entity. It was approved 30-7.
- Create a new constitutional right for crime victims to receive information and provide input during criminal cases. Known as Marsy's Law, the measure would, among other things, establish a right for the safety of victims and their family members to be considered when bail is set in criminal cases. The package also would expand the mandatory retirement age for judges and would require judges and hearing officers to independently interpret statutes and rules rather than deferring to government agency’s interpretation. It was approved 34-3.
- Ban oil and gas exploration in state waters while also banning vaping in indoor workspace. It was approved 33-3.
- Create a new department of veterans’ affairs, create an office of counterterrorism, and a plan to require charter counties like Miami-Dade and Broward to elect their sheriff and tax collectors. Those proposals were combined with a plan to and move the legislative session to January every other year. It was approved 29-8.
- Delete outdated three provisions in the Constitution relating to property taxes, criminal statutes and high speed rail. It was approved 36-1.
- Prohibit former public officials -- legislators, local government officials, governors, agency heads, and Cabinet officials -- from making money off lobbying their former colleagues for six years. Establishes new standards for abuses of public office for personal benefit. It was approved 30-4.
- Give greyhound racing tracks until 2020 to phase out dog racing. It was approved 27-10.
The charter school proposal was sponsored by Erika Donalds, a charter school activist who serves on the Collier County School Board. She argued that the proposal will encourage innovation in Florida schools and was needed to update an "antiquated" constitution. Donalds is a founding board member for Mason Classical Academy, a Hillsdale College public charter school in Collier County that is expanding to other parts of the state.
Roberto Martinez, a Coral Gables lawyer and school choice activist who served on the state Board of Education under former Gov. Jeb Bush, however argued that that while he supports charter schools, he disagrees "that the solution is to create a statewide agency."
"It's a big deal. It's a game changer,'' he said. "It will allow the Legislature to create a new government bureaucracy -- not located at the local level -- created somewhere on Mount Tallahassee."
He also warned that voters will be confused by the way the proposal is written. He tried and failed to change the title to describe the amendment as relating to "alternative state supervision of certain public schools" instead of "public schools."
"All I'm suggesting is let's give the voters a better title, a better tag, so that when they get to that question they can understand what is it we are being asked to vote on,'' he said. His amendment was rejected by a 16-21 vote.
Donalds said the amendment was needed because she considers the current constitution "antiquated" because it protects what she called "the education monopoly." She said that 35 other states have taken similar actions.
"It's not the end of public education there either,'' she said, "because when parents have the ability to choose and have high-quality options, that makes everyone even better."
Arguing that the state should create a level playing field for traditional public schools to compete with the charter school industry, Martinez proposed an amendment that would have given traditional schools that are rated high-performing and have solid finances to be given the same kind of flexibility in curriculum and operations than the charter schools get.
"If somebody is for innovation, if somebody is for competition, if somebody is for flexibility as to how we provide education, that person should support this,'' he said. "It would seem to me that the public charter schools would want competition because all competition is good." The commission rejected the idea.
The commission also rejected a series of Martinez amendments that would have given voters the ability to choose or reject each proposal on its own merits.
Martinez argued that if voters like one item in a group that has been bundled together, then they have to accept the others, even if they don't support the other proposals. Critics, such as a coalition of progressive groups that include the League of Women Voters and ACLU, said the bundling is an organized effort to protect proposals that would not stand on their own and will mislead voters.
Commissioner Anna Marie Hernandez Gamez, a Coral Gables lawyer, tried and failed to persuade the commission to separate from a bundled amendment the plan to require Miami-Dade County to have an elected sheriff. That proposal is grouped with three other proposals that would create the Office of Domestic Security and Counterterrorism within the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, create a Department of Veterans Affairs and require the legislative session to begin in January every other year.
After a lengthy debate, the commission also rejected a proposal to close the write-in loophole used by political consultants for many candidates to keep voters from any party to vote in a primary election. Commissioner Sherry Plymale said the change was needed to clean-up language from the 1998 Constitution Revision Commission that intended to give all voters a chance to vote in a primary when there is no opposition of the same party.
"This constitutional right was undone not by voters, not by the legislature but by political consultants and their candidates who invented a loophole that was not even considered by the CRC,'' she said. The commission voted for the amendment 19-17, three votes short of the 22 needed to make it to the ballot..
For any of the amendments to become law, they must win support of 60 percent of the voters.