The biggest issues affecting education debate in Tallahassee this year may have nothing to do with classrooms.
The once-every-ten-years redistricting, South Florida casinos and overhauling state insurance rules should provoke contentious debate, lawmakers and education advocates said. Those bills could squeeze out education as the session’s marquee issue.
Last year the Legislature approved a sweeping bill requiring teacher evaluations and performance-based pay. The law also eliminated long-term teacher contracts.
But that doesn’t mean education will be forgotten when the legislature resumes today. Lawmakers are considering bills that would expand access to online courses, allow students to graduate high school early and give parents more control over restructuring low-performing schools.
Lawmakers also plan to revisit last year’s sweeping overhaul law.
Unclear is whether the Legislature will start the process of retooling state universities to better meet job growth.
“We’re not doing a lot of big committee bills like we did last year,” said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland and chairman of the House K-20 innovation subcommittee. “There was some discussion: ‘Let’s wait. Let’s implement what we’ve got.’ We’re trying to work through those things.”
Here’s an issue-by-issue breakdown of what to expect regarding education in Tallahassee this year.
As always, school funding will be central to the budget debate with lawmakers facing a projected $2 billion shortfall. The debate will focus on two questions: How much to spend? And who should get it?
Florida has cut school funding more than 18 percent since the Great Recession began in 2008.
Gov. Rick Scott wants to add $1 billion to schools and has vowed to veto any budget which does not increase K-12 spending. But this year is different, said Patricia Levesque, director of the Foundation for Florida’s Future.
“The good sign for public schools is that all the presiding officers and the governor has seemed to make really strong statements that they want to protect public school budgets this year,”
Adding money won’t be easy. Scott recommended lawmakers cut what the state pays doctors and hospitals to treat patients in the state-run health insurance program for the poor and disabled and add the savings to schools.
Stargel said lawmakers are facing a choice between two unpleasant options.
“I would love to give it an increase,” Stargel said. “At one point you’re going to take dialysis from a child to give them an education.”
An additional $1 billion dollars would restore money cut in the current budget year ending June 30 but go no further on previous years’ cuts, said Wayne Blanton, director of the Florida School Boards Association. Kathleen Oropeza, who founded Fund Education Now, says it’s a choice lawmakers should not be forced to make.
“High-quality public education is a fundamental value of the people of Florida,” Oropeza said, referencing the state constitution. “It should not be an either/or situation.”
As lawmakers seek to once again expand school funding, charter schools are seeking a larger share of the pie.
Charter school advocates are pushing a bill that would charter schools receive equivalent state and local funding as district schools. A 2009 Ball State University study found Florida charter schools receive about $2,700 less per student than district schools.
Most of the difference – about $2,000 — was in local funding, according to the Ball State report. School districts can ask voters for a local tax increase to fund schools, but school boards make the decision how the money is spent.
Stargel said House staff is researching school funding to see if the numbers have changed since the Ball State study. The bill is a top priority of charter school advocacy groups. Stargel said she and other House members would likely support equal funding if it turns out there is a difference.
More Options for Students and Parents
Last year’s session focused on teachers, so education advocates are proposing bills adding school choice options and creating a fast track for students who want to graduate high school early.
If a bill could become controversial, it’s most likely the so-called “parent trigger” bill supported by Scott and others.
The bill would allow parents whose children attend a school that fails to meet federal standards to vote on how to overhaul the school with a majority vote. Those changes could include converting to a charter school or replacing the principal or staff at the school.
Currently school boards choose which option they want.
Levesque said the bill is one of three legislative priorities for her group.
California was the first state to approve a “parent trigger,” and a bitter political fight erupted between parent trigger advocates and the teachers’ union in Connecticut last year.
Advocates also want to expand access to online or virtual classes. Currently, in order to take Florida Virtual School courses an elementary school student must do so full-time. Levesque and the Foundation for Florida’s Future want elementary school students to be able to pick and choose their online courses.
Home school students could also choose virtual classes a la carte if the bill is approved.
Another bill would aid students who want to graduate high school in less than four years without reducing funding at their high school. Schools would receive four years’ worth of funding for each student, even if those students took additional classes to graduate early.
“Let them take more dual enrollment. Let them take more courses if those students want to graduate in three years and get on and start college early,” Levesque said. “Right now the way our funding formula is set up school districts don’t have an incentive to let that bright student finish high school in three years because they miss out on a year of funding.
Lawmakers are also taking a second look at any state requirements that have a price tag for local schools. The most notable example requires middle school students take a semester of physical education.
Students could still opt for gym classes, but schools expect they could put resources elsewhere.
Stargel said she and other lawmakers want to reevaluate the requirements and see if any have outlived their usefulness. If lawmakers can not give schools more money, she said, the least they can do is give schools more flexibility with the money they have.
About 40 percent of Duval County schools’ $1.6 billion budget is restricted to specific items such as school buildings, food or mandated programs, according to Jacksonville Public Education Fund research.
Trey Csar, the group’s director, said lawmakers should make sure every requirement benefits students.
“There’s are a lot of things that districts are required to do that are important things,” Csar said. “What’s in the best interest of students? Where is that funding coming from?”
Scott threw out a marker last fall by urging colleges to “drive” students into majors expecting better future job growth, particularly science, technology, engineering and math fields know as STEM.
“It’s a great opportunity for laws to get slipped in when people aren’t paying attention.”
-Fund Education Now’s Kathleen Oropeza
Scott also passed around a seven-point plan to measure college efficiency drafted by a libertarian-leaning Texas think tank.
House lawmakers have scheduled a hearing Jan. 14 with all 11 university presidents to discuss the issue.
Expect the presidents to be well-armed: Universities have been gathering reams of data about students, majors, graduation rates and other information at the request of Scott and lawmakers for most of the summer.
House education committee chairman Bill Proctor, R-St. Augustine, told the Florida Times-Union he does not know if his committee will draft a bill on the issue or just compile a list of recommendations.
Though the expectation is for a lighter education workload this year, Oropeza said her group is keeping close watch. A presidential primary, redistricting, gambling and other high-profile issues provide a perfect distraction to approve something under the radar.
“It’s a great opportunity for laws to get slipped in when people aren’t paying attention,” she said.