Fla. Senate avoids changes to massive education bill

Attempts to modify or remove funding from parts of a major piece of education legislation fizzled today in the Florida Senate.

As a result, all $419 million in House Bill 7069, including the House’s signature program to draw top charter school operators to academically struggling areas of the state, will likely remain intact as Gov. Rick Scott evaluates the measure in the face of a heated public campaign.

Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs and Senate education budget chief, set aside attempts to shift funding from the Schools of Hope grant program and a teacher bonus program into the main operating fund for public schools.

He had raised concerns about how the bill would be implemented and made clear today he still hopes those concerns will be addressed at some point.

During a debate on the Senate floor, Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, gave a forceful defense of the measure. He sponsored an expansion of virtual education eligibility that was folded into the bill during the regular legislative session that concluded last month. He rejected the idea, espoused by opponents of the bill, that it was simply force-fed to some Senators “to make a deal” with the other chamber.

Baxley said he agreed with Simmons that parts of the bill might need to be revisited. But he said it would do a lot of good. He said that lawmakers needed to do right by the “80 percent” of students who would continue to prefer district-run public schools. But he said students in hundreds of persistently struggling needed the kind of systemic change the bill would create.

“I’ve seen too many people trapped, and I’ve seen no proof that just spending more per student is going to change the issue,” he said.

Senate President Joe Negron reiterated his support for the measure today, and House Speaker Richard Corcoran took to social media to rebut its critics.

Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, tried to shift $30 million in funding for Gardiner Scholarships* out of HB 7069, and into legislation that would boost funding for the state’s public schools — a key issue for which Gov. Rick Scott had summoned lawmakers back to Tallahassee. Farmer argued the shift would give the governor greater latitude to veto the House bill. His amendment failed.

Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, said lawmakers would need to revisit the legislation to address its impact on school districts. But he said the three-day special session, intended to deal with narrow spending issues and scheduled to end Friday, wasn’t the place to do it.

“We are committed to solving this issue, but we cannot solve it today,” he said.

*Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the Gardiner Scholarship program.