By Lloyd Dunkelberger
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
TALLAHASSEE — In a replay of last year, the House on Wednesday attached a major education policy bill to the state budget, spurring a debate on controversial issues such as a voucher-like program for students who are bullied and an effort to weaken teachers’ unions.
The House Appropriations Committee voted 20-8 for the 198-page budget “conforming” bill (HB 7055), which contains more than two dozen policy issues impacting the kindergarten-through-high-school system.
Among the measures addressed:
— “Hope Scholarships,” which would allow students who are bullied, harassed or suffer other types of abuse to receive scholarships to transfer to private schools. The scholarships would be funded through tax credits.
— A $9.7 million program that would allow low-performing readers in second through fifth grades to obtain private services, like tutors.
— A requirement that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below half of the employees they represent.
— An effort to consolidate and strengthen state oversight of publicly funded private-school scholarship programs, including Florida Tax Credit scholarships.
— A two-year post-employment ban on lobbying for appointed school superintendents and “anti-nepotism” provisions for hiring by superintendents.
— A requirement for paper-based statewide English and math assessments in seventh and eighth grades.
— Allowing principals to manage multiple schools under an independent governing board.
— Letting charter schools have access to surplus property on the same basis as public schools.
The emergence of the major education policy bill is similar to last year, when the House pushed for the passage of another budget-related bill (HB 7069) that included creating the controversial “schools of hope” program aimed at spurring the development of charter schools near struggling public schools.
School districts have filed at least three legal challenges to the 2017 legislation, including arguing that it improperly combined too many unrelated issues in the same bill.
The new bill drew strong opposition from the Florida Education Association, particularly for a provision that could cause unions representing “instructional personnel” to lose their state certification if membership dropped below 50 percent of the bargaining unit.
“I’m not sure when public school teachers became enemy No. 1, but we have,” said Joanne McCall, president of the FEA, the state’s largest teachers’ union. “For more than a decade, this Legislature has done nothing but demonize, demoralize and tear apart the teaching profession. This bill is yet one more example of this.”
McCall criticized the massive scope of the bill, saying issues like the hope scholarships or union membership should be considered as separate policy bills rather than being rolled into a legislative “train.”
“If the ideas are so great, they should advance or fall on their own merits rather than being lumped together in a take-it-or-leave-it package,” she said.
House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, defended the process, saying it was important to link major policy provisions with the annual budget process.
“If the (policy) bill passes without the appropriate funding, it serves no purpose,” Trujillo said.
Democrats raised objections to the hope-scholarship program, which would let students qualify for financial support to transfer to private or public schools if they are victims of incidents, ranging from bullying and harassment to more serious events like kidnapping and sexual assault.
Democrats characterized the program as a “government bailout,” saying efforts should be directed at the bullies rather than moving victims to new schools.
“We should remove the bully. We should not reward the bully,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. “And the government should not come in and bail you out.”
But Republicans defended the program, saying it was aimed at “empowering parents” by giving them more school options, while helping victims.
“Make no mistake, this bill is about the victim, and I’m proud to support it,” said Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.