A wide-ranging education bill with more than a dozen significant policy proposals passed the Florida Senate this afternoon after minimal or zero debate on some of the measure's most consequential aspects.
HB 7029 deals with capital funding, charter schools, open enrollment in K-12 schools, high school athletics and higher education funding, among other areas.
Senators passed it 28-12, with Democratic Sens. Bill Montford, of Tallahassee, and Jeremy Ring, of Margate, joining the Republican majority in support. All other Democrats were opposed.
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has spearheaded the bill through two major re-writes in the Senate during the final weeks of session. The legislation combines several pending bills that were either vetted in committee or have already passed the House.
The Senate's approved version now goes to the House for an up-or-down vote in the remaining two days of session.
Among the various proposals included in HB 7029, the proposed law would:
-- ban charter schools from receiving capital dollars if they lease their facility from a private or for-profit entity or one with any affiliation to the charter school;
-- steer capital school funding to charter schools that mostly serve impoverished students or those who have disabilities;
-- require school districts to follow a state-imposed cap on how much they can spend on capital projects, or forfeit capital dollars for three years if they exceed that cap;
-- allow public school students to attend any school in the state that has space available;
-- increase accountability measures and financial transparency requirements for the state's 650 charter schools;
-- allow 285,000 high school athletes to be immediately eligible if they change schools during a school year;
-- enact fines and other penalties for school officials who are found to have recruited high school athletes;
-- and codify performance funding for Florida's 12 public universities and 28 state colleges;
Gaetz's ideas for capital funding reforms are a counter-proposal to a measure by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sought to rein in districts' "excessive" spending and change how charter schools qualify for capital dollars. The House has not taken up Fresen's plan on the floor.
Two more policies were tacked on to Gaetz's massive bill on Wednesday prior to the Senate vote.
Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, added a change that's in reaction to controversy in Escambia County over where schools can publish required notices informing students of their right to not participate in the daily Pledge of Allegiance.
Then with only minutes notice, Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, filed added a measure that could steer taxpayer dollars to the Florida Coalition of School Board Members -- a rival organization to the Florida School Boards Association and whose members are more conservative, like the Republican-led Legislature.
Stargel has a separate bill awaiting Senate approval that retaliates against the FSBA for previously suing the state over a voucher-like program that lawmakers supported. That measure prevents the FSBA from using taxpayer money in future lawsuits and it also allows individual school board members the choice of which professional association they belong to. After some Republicans questioned the bill, Stargel asked for it to be postponed just prior to a planned vote this afternoon. It could still come back up today.
Meanwhile, she simultaneously pursued the amendment on Gaetz's bill, which similarly lets school board members send their dues to whichever association they wish to belong to. The amendment potentially steers state funding away from the FSBA and toward the coalition.
That amendment got the most discussion as Gaetz's bill was taken up today, and Democrats accused Stargel of trying to play politics with local school boards.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said Stargel's proposal benefits the likes of billionaires Charles andDavid Koch, "because they seem to have invested a lot of money in school board races as of recent," Bullard said.
"If we're going to create this partisan nature on school boards because people philosophically disagree with the direction that the school board association is going in, this is the wrong avenue to go about it," he said.
Republicans said lawmakers are allowed to choose which national organization they belong to, so school board members should have the same right.
"I don't think we should take that right away from any individual member in our school district," Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Miami, said.