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Controversial Education Bill Becomes Law in Florida

Governor Rick Scott signed a controversial, 278-page education bill Thursday that most school districts and superintendents fought against but pro-charter advocates pushed.

By Denise Smith Amos

Governor Rick Scott signed a controversial, 278-page education bill Thursday that most school districts and superintendents fought against but pro-charter advocates pushed.

Scott signed the bill at a ceremony at an Orlando private school, saying it will help all students.

The bill would, among other things, send hundreds of millions more in taxpayer dollars to charter school operators while reducing what districts get for such things as school construction, maintenance and education programs for poor students, critics said.

Proponents say the bill will be more fair to charter schools and their students.

"It is so gratifying to me ... to see dollars actually following the student. So many of our most vulnerable students will benefit from this," said Ken Haiko, chairman of Renaissance Charter School, Inc., which governs 30 schools in Florida, including some in Jacksonville.

But Duval interim Superintendent Patricia Willis said the bill could have devastating effects on public school students, while letting charter schools skirt local government zoning laws.

"I am disappointed this has now been signed into law," she said. "This signature is truly a signal to families that inequities between traditional public schools and charter schools are acceptable, and restricting local control has outweighed the educational needs of our community."

Duval officials said the law could lead to the closures of three Jacksonville middle schools if they don't earn a C or better this summer, and it could end up closing 20 or more schools next year, because the new law gives public schools less time to climb out of their D or F grade status than in prior years.

District officials also said there will be fewer district-wide programs for Title 1 schools -- which are schools with the most students in poverty -- because the new law sends more of that money directly to schools, including charter schools, and less to district-wide efforts.

"To remain proactive, my leadership team has been looking at possible scenarios and strategies due to expected shifts in funding, enrollment projections, operations, and transportation," Willis said. "There are far too many questions right now, but we will remain steadfast in our planning for the upcoming school year."

Bill proponents say the measure increases recess time in school districts and boosts money for students with disabilities and for teachers and principals who scored high on SAT and ACT college entrance exams.

The legislation was a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, whose wife runs a charter school in Pasco County. Corcoran said through a spokesman that his wife makes no money from the charter school and it won't benefit from some of the financial measures in the bill.

The "Schools of Hope" measure sets aside $140 million to attract charter school operators with a track record for helping low-income students. Duval officials have questioned whether a School of Hope could open that is large enough and near enough to accommodate all displaced middle school students if their schools close.

Representative Jason Fischer, a former Duval County School Board member, said the new law "marks the start of a bold and innovative plan to reform and strengthen Florida's K-12 education system."

Teachers unions disagreed. This week teachers in Jacksonville and across the state protested against the bill, even though it includes something their unions want: The bill would remove the link between teacher pay and teacher "value added" scores, which are supposed to be based on student performance.

Some opponents of the new bill say it slashes money for struggling schools while forcing districts to pay for charter schools they can't afford. State Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Broward County, in a letter Tuesday to Scott, called it a monstrosity created with too little public debate.

"This bill, which faced bipartisan opposition in the State Senate, has the potential to devastate Florida's public education system," he wrote. "This dreadful piece of legislation ... would dramatically reduce the ability of school districts across the state to devote resources towards improving our public education ... his bill is a textbook example of a failure in government transparency."

Farmer serves on the Senate's Education Committee.

The Florida Coalition of School Board members, a conservative education group, is taking some credit for the passage, saying it helped structure and promote the bill. It says the bill's "groundbreaking reform policies" will benefit all students.

The new law:

* Requires districts to split with charters equally the local money each district raises to pay for capital expenditures.

* Sets aside $140 million for "Schools of Hope," which are described as charter schools with a track record of success serving poor students.

* Sends $30 million more to Gardiner Scholarships, which help pay for educational services for students with disabilities.

* Ends the state-required algebra II end-of-course exam, while pushing back other state exams until May.

(c)2017 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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