TALLAHASSEE — Despite school superintendents across the state asking for a veto, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Thursday signed a sweeping education bill that steers more public money to privately-run charter schools.
Citrus County Assistant Superintendent of Schools Mike Mullen is among those disappointed with the new legislation.
The legislation, a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, 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.
The governor signed the bill at a private Catholic school in Orlando.
Scott has said the legislation — coupled with a recent increase in overall school funding passed during last week’s special legislative session — “will put all of Florida’s students on a pathway toward success.”
“When I was growing up, I had access to a good quality education, and every Florida child should have the same opportunity,” Scott said in a statement.
The Republican-led legislation emerged during the waning moments of this year’s session after being cobbled together in private negotiations that involved only a handful of legislators.
The nearly 300-page bill includes a requirement that elementary schools must set aside 20 minutes each day for “free-play recess,” although at the last minute, charter schools were exempted from this mandate.
“It’s not a surprise that charter schools are exempt; they are usually exempt from following the same rules that apply to us. This has always been a source of frustration for public schools,” Mullen said. Citrus County Superintendent of Schools Sandra “Sam” Himmel was out of town and unavailable for comment on this story.
The bill also includes more than $200 million for teacher and principal bonuses.
“The bonus money is being made available for Citrus teachers and principals, as well as other districts. We still do not feel there is any correlation between ACT/SAT scores and teacher performance, therefore this continues to be a source of frustration for our staff,” Mullen said. 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.
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 chronicly failing public schools, many of them in poor areas and urban neighborhoods. Additionally, up to 25 failing public schools may receive up to $2,000 per student for additional student services.
The bill narrowly passed the Florida Senate by one vote on the final day of the session. Some Democrats called it a “monstrosity” that would harm traditional public schools. Its passage sparked major influence campaigns from both sides as thousands emailed or called the governor’s office.
School superintendents said forcing them to steer more money to charter schools will harm students in traditional public schools and could lead to budget cuts and layoffs.
“The bottom line is not the money going to charter schools but the lack of funds going to public schools,” Mullen said.“ The legislators keep citing failing schools as the reason they are giving the money to charters. What about the charters that have failed? And what about districts like ours that did not fail, why keep reducing our funding? We have already reduced our staff for next year and are looking to make more reductions before the budget gets completed.”
The fate of Florida’s fledgling program to help disabled students was also 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 may not have enough money to serve everyone without the extra $30 million.
Legislative leaders did not give a detailed explanation on why they put the extra money for the scholarship program in the bill, which was not released publicly until two days before a final vote. Initially, the state Senate had more than $100 million in its budget for the program, but then agreed to lower it during budget negotiations.
Sen. Jack Latvala, the budget chairman, said the decision to include the money in the bill and not the budget was at Corcoran’s urging. Democrats said the move used families of disabled children as “pawns” to gain support for the legislation.
Local content included in this story from The Associated Press written by Julie Gorham, staff writer.