Education issues key to end of session for Florida Legislature

Florida lawmakers will use the last three weeks of the 2018 session to decide the fate of a number of major education bills that address everything from school bullying to teachers to university tuition.

The decisions will begin unfolding Tuesday when the Senate Education Committee takes up a nearly 200-page bill (HB 7055) that is important to House leaders. The legislation includes provisions that are in more than a half-dozen other education bills pending in the Legislature.

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Late Friday, Senate Education Chairwoman Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, filed a 115-page “strike all” amendment that would replace the House version of the bill with a Senate proposal.

It’s a sign of how Senate-House negotiations will begin on a bill that will be one of the keys to lawmakers reaching a series of agreements, including approval of a new $87 billion-plus budget, and ending the 2018 session on time March 9.

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The Senate already rejected the House’s request to have the education bill considered as part of formal budget negotiations. Instead, the measure will be treated as a regular bill subject to committee review and amendments as it moves to a vote on the Senate floor.

The Senate proposal embraces some of the key provisions in the House bill.

Among them, it would establish a voucher program that would allow public-school students who are bullied or who are “substantiated” victims of other violence or harassment to receive scholarships to attend private schools. The “Hope Scholarship” measure is a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.

However, the Senate measure diverges from the House in funding for the new program. The Senate amendment would let Florida motorists voluntarily agree to contribute $20 to the program when they buy or register vehicles. The donation would act as a credit against the sales tax they would normally pay in a vehicle transaction.

The House wants a $105 tax credit for each transaction, which would generate $41.5 million for the scholarships, compared to $7.9 million in the Senate proposal.

The Senate proposal. meanwhile, agrees with the House on a controversial requirement that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below half of the employees they represent. The Florida Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has been running a media campaign slamming House Bill 7055 as an “assault on our local public schools.”

Both chambers have plans to strengthen state oversight and requirements for publicly funded private-school scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.

The new Senate proposal incorporates some of the provisions in legislation (SB 1756), sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, including a requirement that teachers in the private schools that educate scholarship students have at least a baccalaureate degree.

Hukill’s amendment is 83 pages shorter than the House bill, reflecting the fact that the Senate is not embracing a number of measures in the legislation.

Among them is the House’s plan for a $9.7 million program that would allow low-performing readers in second- through fifth- grades to obtain private services, like tutors.

The Senate is injecting some of its own initiatives, including a proposed requirement that students entering high school beginning in the fall of 2018 would have to take a financial literacy course sometime in their four years.

Another important meeting this week will be the House Education Committee, which as of Monday morning had not released the agenda for its Wednesday meeting.

However, the committee has a key bill (HB 423), sponsored by Majority Leader Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, that reflects the higher-education priorities of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. In the first week of the session, the Senate unanimously backed its version of the legislation (SB 4).

The bills would make permanent an expansion of Bright Futures merit scholarships to cover full tuition and fees for students who qualify as “academic scholars.” The legislation would expand the aid for “medallion” scholars to cover 75 percent of their tuition and fees.

The measures would also require state universities to develop a “block” tuition plan, where students would pay a flat rate each semester, rather than paying for classes on a per-credit hour basis.

The House bill includes a proposal to change the way performance funding is awarded to the 12 universities, switching to an evaluation based on individual school performance rather than comparing the schools to each other. The Senate bill retains the current evaluation system.

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