Members of the Florida House of Representatives wait on the final budget to arrive from the Senate on May 8 at the state capitol in Tallahassee. (Mark Wallheiser/AP)

It’s being called legislation by “scam” — and that’s not the worst critique of the new education bill that the Republican-dominated Florida legislature has now approved. Will Republican Gov. Rick Scott veto it, as school superintendents, school boards, public school advocates and even some Republicans are advocating?

The legislation, known as House Bill 7069, was passed by both the Florida House and Senate at the end of their legislative sessions without time for serious consideration or debate, but rather this way, as a piece in the Orlando Sentinel explains:

Instead of carefully considering education proposals one at a time, Republican leaders went behind closed doors to cram 35 different proposals — rules on everything from sunscreen use to charter-schools incentives — into a single, 278-page, take-it-or-leave-it bill unveiled at the last minute. For me to simply reprint the bill, it would take 75 columns this size … and you still wouldn’t get to the part where legislators want to siphon money away from traditional schools until column No. 46.

Among other things, the legislation funds public education at levels that some superintendents say won’t support their public school districts, promotes public school privatization and expands a highly controversial multimillion-dollar program that rewards teachers who had high standardized test scores when they were in high school. (Really.) There are parts of the bill that a good deal of the public supports, such as mandatory recess for elementary school, but the bad parts as well as the legislative process, critics say, outweigh the good.

Scott has not said what he will do, but his office recently released information indicating that public response has been mostly negative. As the Miami Herald put it:

By a margin of at least 3-to-1 so far, Floridians are telling Gov. Rick Scott they want him to veto a controversial $419 million K-12 public schools bill House Republicans pushed through at the end of session, according to information requested from Scott’s office Thursday evening.

Legislative leaders still haven’t sent the bill over to Scott’s office, perhaps waiting to see what he will do with the state budget that just hit the governor’s desk. There is no love lost between Scott and Rep. Richard Corcoran, the speaker of the Florida House of Representatives who was a champion of the legislation, and some Florida observers say Scott will end up vetoing it as a slap at Corcoran as well as because of the public outcry.

The Florida Association of District School Superintendents sent Scott a letter saying the legislation would harm public schools and make it harder to recruit effective teachers, while Robert Runcie, superintendent of Broward County Public Schools, wrote this in an op-ed in the Florida Sun-Sentinel:

If a civics class student submitted a paper on the recent Florida legislative session, I would send it back for a rewrite. In my last Sun Sentinel op-ed, I explained my concerns regarding cuts in educational funding, especially to the Base Student Allocation, which will create a budget deficit for Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) of nearly $7 million. We thought the budget cuts couldn’t get any worse.

To our surprise, they did. A separate 274-page education bill (HB 7069) was introduced and passed during the final hours of the legislative session. HB 7069 was passed with no real opportunity for vetting or public input, and no changes were allowed. Beyond the question regarding process, our greatest concern is how this further erodes our District finances and how this erosion could have devastating long-term consequences.

Simply put, this is yet another example of an education bill that does not prioritize public education. The Legislature may have had good intentions in its initial proposal, such as a reduction in statewide assessments, but the bad provisions far outweigh the good, making the bill unacceptable.

The Orlando Sentinel piece described the legislation as a “scam”:

Imagine for a moment that you went to the grocery store to buy a loaf of bread.

But when you got there, the store manager said the only way you could buy bread would be for you to also buy a gallon of milk, 10 packs of adult diapers, a box of Popsicles, some day-old pastries, a 5-pound pork butt, three gallons of orange juice, a tin of anchovies and a fistful of lottery tickets.

That would sound like a scam, right?

Well, welcome to the way the Florida Legislature handled public education this year — legislation by scam.

A high school student named Jonathan Suarez, who is enrolled at the School for Advanced Studies in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, urged Scott to veto the legislation in a letter that said in part (see the full letter below):

The part of this bill that causes the most insecurity to me, as a student, and so many others is how little time was allowed to properly debate and discuss this massive 278-page bill, a fact that caused Senator David Simmons — a Republican who favors most of the provisions in this bill — to vote against the bill. The process and little time given for the public and other senators to properly read the bill compromises the integrity of our own political process. Democracy requires adequate debate and anything less is just plain wrong.

Please do not allow the Florida legislature to deprive our already underfunded public schools of needed funding. Public schools serve 75% of all students in Florida and provides millions of poor Floridians their only chance at success. Handing over public funds to private corporations, that have not proved they are better at educating children will destroy not only public schools, but school communities. Florida has already documented tens of millions of dollars lost to charter school mismanagement and fraud, with no way to recover those losses. That’s a loss to my education and to the education of every public school student.

 

Here’s the letter from the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, and following that is the student letter to Scott.




 

And here’s the recent Suarez letter to Scott:

Dear Governor Scott,

As a student at the School for Advanced Studies in Miami-Dade Public Schools, I took notice of the education bill passed in the Florida legislature this week: HB7069. I read the bill and discussed its effect on the future of millions of children’s education with teachers and my community. All my teachers have voiced their fears and concerns about the bill.

My public school’s merit and accomplishments are in no small way a result of the great teachers who help shape our minds every day. Yet, many of these passionate individuals barely make a living wage and any raises are minimal. There is a severe teacher shortage in Florida and HB7069 fails to address this dire public concern. The bill expands the “Best and Brightest” bonus program, however those bonuses are determined by how teachers performed on their high school SAT/ACT exams — rather than their actual performance as teachers. The solution to dealing with the teacher shortages and concerns about their performance is to increase salaries and properly evaluate their teaching, so that more trained individuals can be confident that the teaching profession can offer them a successful career and a way to support their families. Teachers and their unions have spoken out against this bill. The legislation can claim that this is their attempt to bypass unions and reward teachers directly, but they fail to acknowledge that unions are the teachers — and they don’t support HB7069.

Next there is the issue of “Schools of Hope” — A plan to attract for-profit charter corporations from out of state to set up shop in neighborhoods with failing schools. Why would we want to send Florida tax revenue out of Florida? HB7069 would set the schools up in these areas and would provide them one hundred and forty million dollars in funding. These funds would be given to charter schools so they can construct schools, hire teachers, train teacher, and recruit students.

Why not simply use those funds to help established, but struggling public schools to pay for improvements, such as infrastructure, better funded after-school programs, new books or technology, and all at a lower cost than it would take to start a new charter school, which has profit as a goal.

From personal experience, charter schools are NOT the solution to the problems in public education.

I attended International Studies Charter High school from sixth to tenth grade before transferring into School for Advanced Studies. During my time in this charter school, I observed the truth that arises from the fact that charter schools are businesses first. I saw teachers getting replaced by less experienced teachers after teaching for years simply because their salaries became too expensive; the cafeteria being turned into classrooms after lunch because the school wanted to bring in more students to increase profits; and the struggle my peers and I went through walking miles home because the state doesn’t require charter schools to provide transportation and, therefore, they did not, as it was viewed as an unnecessary expense. HB 7069 is supposed to offer hope to poor families, but poor families can’t afford transportation for school.

Poor families. These are the ones who will suffer the greatest harm from this bill. Millions of children throughout Florida and the United States are given opportunities through Title I funds in public schools. These programs provide structure to fragile schools that educate multitudes of children suffering from poverty. Under HB7069, the threshold for which schools will qualify for Title I funds would be lowered, which will result in many public schools receiving less money at the district level. This would result in the loss of millions of dollars to programs that offer a glimmer of hope to children living in the harshest conditions. We, as fellow citizens, have an obligation to help provide children in need with the necessary resources to succeed in life.

Many kids fall behind in school, not because they don’t work hard, but due to homelessness, economic instability, or serious family issues. These children would either typically not be allowed into charter schools or would be dismissed because the cost of helping them to catch up threatens profits. With their schools deprived of the necessary funds to help them realize their potential, poor and struggling children will be left to go the underfunded public school, a block away from the new charter school. Starving neighborhood schools of needed resources so families see no options but charters is not a valid “choice.” That is the reality of the charter schools that would be funded by this bill: it is not about choice, it is about profit.

The part of this bill that causes the most insecurity to me, as a student, and so many others is how little time was allowed to properly debate and discuss this massive 278-page bill, a fact that caused Senator David Simmons — a Republican who favors most of the provisions in this bill — to vote against the bill. The process and little time given for the public and other senators to properly read the bill compromises the integrity of our own political process. Democracy requires adequate debate and anything less is just plain wrong.

Please do not allow the Florida legislature to deprive our already underfunded public schools of needed funding. Public schools serve 75% of all students in Florida and provides millions of poor Floridians their only chance at success. Handing over public funds to private corporations, that have not proved they are better at educating children will destroy not only public schools, but school communities. Florida has already documented tens of millions of dollars lost to charter school mismanagement and fraud, with no way to recover those losses. That’s a loss to my education and to the education of every public school student.

HB7069 has some merit to it. There are aspects to the bill that would offer recess to kids, but it also exempts charter schools from providing recess. Do charter operators not want recess for their students? Bright Futures funding was increased, but only for top performers. This will limit many students with learning disabilities from pursuing a college education. It should be increased for all students. Recess and Bright Futures come at the expense of every public school student, current and future.

I ask you respectfully, Governor Scott, please do justice by the students, teachers, and future children and educators of this beautiful and amazing state of ours and line item veto the parts of this bill that will hurt the future of millions of students and millions to come, or veto the bill so that legislators can start over. Florida can and must do better than this. We are counting on you.

Sincerely,
Jonathan Suarez, Proud student
School for Advanced Studies, MDCPS