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Education Bills Moving Ahead In The Legislature

Kristen M. Clark
Kristen Clark, Tallahassee reporter for the Miami Herald

The Florida House of Representatives last week wrestled with key education proposals. 

Robin Sussingham of StateImpact Florida spoke with Kristen Clark, a Tallahassee reporter for the Miami Herald, who said the most hotly debated bills include ones that would give students more school choice by doing away with zoning, school construction, recess and a bill that rewards teachers for getting top scores on their own college assessment exams. 

RS: The House  began work on a proposal  that would allow students to go to any school in the state that has open seats.  It would do away with school zoning. There's a similar proposal in the Senate, that would also let athletes transfer and start playing their sport with no waiting period, as there is now.

KC: The common theme of the two pieces of legislation in both the House and Senate is this open enrollment idea, in which you could transfer your child to any school in the state that you wanted, so long as that school has an opening for your child. The Senate version of the bill has many more components to it, and deals much more broadly and comprehensively with high school athletics. This bill would -- in the minds of some athletic directors and coaches -- potentially open the door to  free agency of high school athletes.

RS: The legislature and school district superintendents are clashing over a bill that would set limits on what they spend for construction. Especially galling to them is language in a House bill, that requires some of the local tax money go to charter schools for their construction. What's happening with that effort?

KC: That's an idea of Miami Republican Representative Erik Fresen, who controls the education budget committee here in the House. And it's something that he's developed over the years, looking into the data, and he says he's found egregious examples of school districts overspending on school projects or additions or maintenance. He wants to reform this, and the problem in a lot of legislators' minds is this charter school component, requiring (school districts) to give some local tax dollars to charter schools, which they haven't accounted for now and haven't planned to account for. It's a passionate flash point in this debate of charter schools versus traditional schools.

RS: The controversial "Best and Brightest" program is coming up for a vote in the House -- it provides bonuses of up to $10,000 for teachers that did well on the SAT college assessement exam.

KC: Again, that's Miami Republican Erik Fresen who has spearheaded that this year. Fresen says it's common sense that a smart person might be good at teaching. He says this is a good retention and recruitment tool to ensure that smart teachers enter the profession and influence the next generation of children. So he's really advocating for this, it's a top priority of his and the House backs him on that.

But in the Senate, there are a lot of questions, because this was never vetted in that chamber last year. So they're taking their time. They endorse the idea of rewarding teachers for good work, but the question of whether ACT or SAT scores are an indicator of a good teacher is what they question. They haven't even funded, in their proposed budget, any dollars to continue this program.

RS: The issue of "recess" has galvanized parents in the state this year. A bill requiring 100 minutes per week of free time is going nowhere in the Senate so far.

KC: That is something that parents are absolutely impassioned about, and it really is an example of legislation coming from the people. This is not something lawmakers thought of, it's something where constituents went to their lawmakers and said 'you need to do something about it.' So it's a prime example of just basic democracy. We had some parents up here recently just imploring the Senate to take it up.

And right now the bill is stalled in Sen. Legg's committee, who says it's a local issue and (that the legsislature) can't mandate something for all districts to follow, and is opposed to a statewide mandate to require it. So he's not going to hear the bill, and says he's not going to change his mind on that, either.

In the House, it's a slam dunk, it's a no-brainer. It's got such overwhelming bipartisan support. The hold-up is in the Senate, and Senate President Andy Gardiner is not one to intervene and tell his committee chairs what to hear or what not to hear. Sen. Legg, this is his prerogative, this is his power as committee chair, to decide whether to hear this bill. And he says 'no.' So that effectively kills the bill this year.

And if lawmakers really want it, they will have to come back in 2017 and take it up.


Robin Sussingham was Senior Editor at WUSF until September 2020.