State Politics

Florida Senate committee approves 2 wide-ranging education bills

Florida Senate will take up a range of education proposals in Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
Florida Senate will take up a range of education proposals in Appropriations Committee on Thursday. Miami Herald file photo

Nearly 30 education-related topics — including some of the most high-profile and contentious policies discussed this year — have been folded into two bills that the Florida Senate’s budget committee approved Thursday.

Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz proposed sweeping rewrites of two of his bills in order to give House and Senate priorities a better chance at passage as the Legislature nears the final two weeks of session.

Tacking on numerous proposals en masse is a way for lawmakers to salvage foundering or stalled bills — a process Gaetz called “fairly routine” for the end of session.

“If you have some good ideas that have received strong support in both houses, you try to create a balanced approach,” Gaetz said Wednesday. “The point is to look for issues that have had substantial merit and substantial support and give them an opportunity to be heard in Appropriations and heard on the floor and negotiated with the House.”

Both of the bills (SB 524 and SB 1166) were originally only three pages long and dealt narrowly with public universities’ performance funding and education funding, respectively.

The 59-page rewrite to SB 524 includes such controversial issues as the “Best and Brightest” teacher bonus plan, the Senate’s proposed reforms for capital funding to charter schools and school districts, and at least a dozen more topics.

Similarly, the new, 85-page version of SB 1166 now includes: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures and high school athletics proposals, among other topics.

The individual policy proposals are working their way through the Senate in various forms, with a few — like the teacher bonuses — facing difficulty passing on their own.

Several, such as open enrollment and charter school accountability, are House priorities and already cleared that chamber.

Both of Gaetz’s bills now go to the Senate floor for consideration. The House and Senate have to pass identical bills in order for the governor to sign them into law, so further negotiation may be necessary for the measures to clear both chambers.

Gaetz said his wide-ranging bills are part of an effort to reach compromise with the House.

For instance, Gaetz folded the House’s proposed language for “Best and Brightest” into the amendment to SB 524, instead of using the Senate’s working language — a standalone bill that narrowly survived its first committee last month and would have allowed more teachers to qualify for the bonuses.

“I felt the House language deserved to be heard in the Senate,” said Gaetz, a former superintendent of schools and school board member in Okaloosa County.

But several senators in both parties have concerns about the bonus plan, and some don’t want it as part of Gaetz’s bill.

The bonus program rewards “highly effective” teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in high school. Gaetz and Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen — the House sponsor who came up with the idea last year — describe it as a “recruitment and retention tool.”

But critics, including the state’s largest teachers union, argue it’s not a fair way to reward teachers — there’s no proven correlation between student performance and teachers’ high school exam scores — and that it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, filed a hand-written amendment during Thursday’s appropriations meeting that sought to jettison the bonus plan from Gaetz’s rewrite. It was rejected on a close-sounding voice vote.

“I think we need to delete that to make this bill much much better,” Hays said. “The idea of putting incentive programs out there to entice young people to come into the teaching profession, I would back it up all the way. But don’t make it insulting to those teachers that have been in the career for decades.”

Hays told the Herald/Times after the meeting he would pursue his amendment again on the Senate floor.

He also said if he can find a way, he’ll again attempt to revive his proposal to require mandatory recess in Florida’s public elementary schools.

Hays had filed, but withdrew at Thursday’s meeting, an amendment to tack his recess bill onto SB 1166.

Hays said during the meeting that he “really, really believes that our students deserve recess,” but will “wait for a better day” — a decision he said he made after speaking earlier in the day with Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Sen. John Legg, the Trinity Republican who chairs the chamber’s education policy committee.

Legg told the Tampa Bay Times that he “respectfully brought up” a Senate rule that would’ve required Gaetz’s entire bill to be re-referred back to committee, if Hays’ amendment were adopted.

Legg refused to take up Hays’ bill in his committee. He calls it “a local issue,” but passionate “recess moms” are imploring lawmakers to take action and circumvent Legg.

SB 1166 passed the Appropriations Committee unanimously, but three members opposed SB 524: Hays, Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, of Tampa, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

Latvala, like Hays, objected to “Best and Brightest” being included in the bill.

Joyner argued Gaetz’s total rewrite was “out of order” because it dealt with the subject of at least five other pending bills in the Senate — topics of which, she argued, weren’t “germane” to the purpose of the bill.

Originally, SB 524 dealt narrowly with public universities’ performance funding. Appropriations Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said Gaetz’s vast amendment was valid because the proposed committee substitute of Gaetz’s bill included a title change, to make the bill deal broadly with “education.”

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

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