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Mon April 7, 2014
Checking In On Education Bills As Florida Legislature Reaches Halfway Point
The 2014 Florida legislative session reached the halfway point last week, so we thought we’d check in on some of the big education bills.
The House, Senate and Gov. Rick Scott mostly agree on education spending based on their proposed budgets.
Both the House and the Senate approved roughly $75 billion budgets last week which would add more money for K-12. The House is proposing the largest increase – adding $207.98 more per student next year, or just over 3 percent. The Senate spending plan increases per-student funding by $175 per student.
While both budgets would set a record for total state education spending, both budgets fall short of the per-student high water mark of $7,126 set during the the 2007-2008 school year.
Schools are also likely to receive more money for maintenance after several years with almost nothing in the state budget to fix roofs, replace equipment and take care of other long-term repairs. The House budget includes $50 million for district school maintenance, while the Senate includes $40 million.
But both houses have proposed charter schools receive even more maintenance money — $100 million in the House budget and $50 million in the Senate.
The House and Senate each passed their version of the budget last week. Now they’ll have to work out a compromise.
PRIVATE SCHOOL SCHOLARSHIPS
The most controversial education bill of the legislative session has been a Republican disagreement about how to expand Florida’s tax credit scholarship program for private schools.
But House and Senate lawmakers don’t agree on whether those students should have to take the statewide exam required at public school — currently the FCAT. Students receiving a tax credit tuition scholarship do have to take a national norm-referenced exam, such as the Stanford Achievement Test.
So, two weeks ago a the bill nearly died after the Senate sponsor withdrew his bill.
The move left House Speaker Will Weatherford – who doesn’t support the additional testing - seeking a little peace of mind.
“I can’t control what happens in the Senate,” Weatherford said, after the Senate pulled its bill, “but I can control what I do in the House."
“Like I said before, nothing’s dead in week three. But I would say it’s certainly created significant challenges for the bill.”
Senate President Don Gaetz wanted to require the testing in 2008. But House lawmakers outmaneuvered Gaetz and removed it.
A House lawmaker has added the voucher expansion to another bill creating education accounts for students with disabilities. But the testing disagreement means it’s no sure thing. And the Senate sponsor of the bill, Sen. Kelli Stargel, said she doesn’t support adding the tax credit scholarship expansion to her bill.
Advocates on both sides have made it their top priority.
There’s been more agreement on college tuition in Tallahassee.
Lawmakers passed legislation that will let military veterans pay in-state tuition.
The Florida GI Bill was actually the first bill Gov. Scott signed this session. So if you’ve been serving abroad or on a base in another state, you don’t have to pay out of state tuition at Florida schools.
There’s also a bill in the works that would grant in-state tuition for undocumented students. These are kids whose parents brought them here when they were younger, but they’ve been in Florida schools for at least three years.
Florida universities already have the authority to do this. Florida International University in Miami gives in-state tuition to undocumented students. But, this bill would make it a statewide policy.
It’s already passed the house, and it passed a Senate committee—though it’s probably headed for a bigger fight in the senate. Some lawmakers are asking why the legislature needs to pass a law?
“They have the discretion to approve in-state tuition for these folks already,” said Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Hillsborough County. “For whatever reason, they’re not doing it. If they think that’s the appropriate public policy, they should come up here and tell us so. And they should use the resources we give them to implement that policy.”
There’s also a push to cut year-to-year tuition increases from 15 percent to 6 percent. Gov. Scott wants lawmakers to repeal the tuition law entirely.
Slowing tuition increases is a popular mission.
But that bill has gotten complicated because of an amendment that would also limit community colleges’ ability to offer bachelor’s degrees.
Despite a lot of noise about the new K-12 math and language arts standards, it looks as if lawmakers won’t get involved in the dispute. Schools are scheduled to complete the transition to the new standards when classes start this fall.
A bill putting the standards on hold has yet to get a hearing.
And lawmakers are largely going along with Education Commissioner Pam Stewart’s recommendations for changing the school grading system. That means the consequences of school grades will be put on hold for one year as Florida switches to anew statewide test tied to its Common Core-based standards.
But Florida school superintendents won’t get their request of a three-year extension as schools made the switch to the new standards. The superintendents also asked state leaders to scrap the current school grading system and come up with a new formula.