Florida Gov. Rick Scott, a day after insisting he still hadn't made up his mind, signed a sweeping education bill into law Thursday that steers more public money to privately run charter schools.
Flanked by House Republicans who were the driving force behind the measure, Scott approved the bill during a ceremony held at a private Catholic school in Orlando. The legislation also requires recess in elementary schools, tinkers with the state's oft-criticized standardized testing system, and includes millions of dollars for teacher and principal bonuses as well as a program serving disabled children.
Scott defended his decision to sign the legislation, despite calls for vetoes from school superintendents and school boards. He maintained it would help schools since it also comes on the heels of an increase in overall school funding passed during last week's special session.
"The historic funding we've secured with along with more choices for students will give every family in Florida the opportunity to receive a quality education no matter what zip code they live in," Scott said.
Scott had been asked about the fate of the contentious legislation for weeks. He denied he had agreed to support it in exchange for getting the Legislature to change course and set aside money for his priorities, including money for tourism marketing and a new $85 million to help lure companies to the state.
The bill emerged during the waning moments of the session, cobbled together in private negotiations by a handful of legislators, including House Speaker Richard Corcoran. It passed the state Senate by one vote as a handful of Republicans joined Democrats in opposing it.
The nearly 300-page bill (HB 7069) includes a requirement that elementary schools must set aside 20 minutes each day for "free-play recess," although charter schools were exempted. It also includes more than $200 million for teacher and principal bonuses.
Bowing to criticism about Florida's testing regimen, the measure also eliminates the Algebra 2 end-of-course exam and shifts the dates for the state's main standardized test closer to the end of the school year. It also allows lower grades to use paper versions instead of requiring students to take the test online.
A major part of the bill creates the "Schools of Hope" program, offering financial incentives to charter school operators who agree to take students attending chronically failing public schools, many from poor areas and urban neighborhoods. Additionally, up to 25 failing public schools may receive up to $2,000 per student for additional student services.
Corcoran insisted that this provision would transform Florida's schools.
"We have kids in Florida who are stuck in failure factories from their first entry into public school to the end," Corcoran said. "This is the beginning of the end of that."
But the measure drew sharp criticism and sparked major influence campaigns from both sides as thousands emailed or called the governor's office. School superintendents were among the main critics, citing a provision that now mandates districts must share construction money with charter schools and a planned restructuring of how districts can spend federal money that is provided to help low-income students. They have warned it could lead to budget cuts and layoffs.
"Today is a sad day for the vast majority of Florida public schoolchildren," said Kurt Browning, school superintendent in Corcoran's home county. "Governor Scott's signing of HB 7069 flies in the face of home rule and forsakes traditional public school students in favor of charter school students."
The fate of Florida's fledging program to help disabled students also was tied to the legislation. That's because it includes extra money for the Gardiner Scholarship program that provides tuition, therapy and other services to roughly 8,000 disabled students. Legislators included $73 million in the state budget for scholarships, but those who operate the program say it is growing and they would not have had enough money to serve everyone without the extra $30 million.