TALLAHASSEE -- A wide-ranging education bill with more than a dozen significant policy proposals passed the Florida Senate without any debate Wednesday on the measure's most consequential components.
HB 7029 deals with capital funding for charter and traditional public schools, accountability measures for charter schools, open enrollment in K-12 public schools, high school athletics and funding for state colleges and public universities, among other areas.
State Senators passed it 28-12, with Democratic state Sens. Bill Montford of Tallahassee, and Jeremy Ring of Margate, joining the Republican majority in support. All other Democrats were opposed.
State Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has spearheaded the bill through two major rewrites 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 136-page approved version now goes to the House for an up-or-down vote before session ends sometime Friday.
House leaders said Wednesday afternoon they were still reviewing all the facets of Gaetz's massive education bill.
"We'll look through it and see what we agree with and what we don't," said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. "I think we mostly agree with everything in that bill."
He cited the funding for pre-eminent research universities and the high school athletics provisions as among those House Republicans generally support. The previous version of HB 7029 included the charter school accountability measures and passed the House in February, as did another standalone bill that included open enrollment.
House Democratic Leader state Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said bills that balloon in size and content are worrisome as session enters its final hours.
"You can have your best analysts read something and miss something," Pafford said. "It's tough to keep up on a normal day. When you get served a 200-page bill, or whatever it's going to be, that could be a problem. Sometimes your best bet is to vote 'no.' "
Gaetz's ideas for capital funding reforms are a counter-proposal to a measure by state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sought to rein in what he called districts' "excessive" spending and also change how charter schools qualify for capital dollars. The House has not taken up Fresen's plan on the floor.
Fresen said he hadn't looked at Gaetz's full bill as of Wednesday afternoon, but he previously voiced optimism Gaetz's plan included the core principles of what Fresen wanted to achieve. A notable difference: Gaetz's proposal goes much further in restricting how much capital funding privately managed charter schools might get.
More provisions added on
Two more policies were tacked on to Gaetz's massive bill Wednesday prior to the Senate vote.
State Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, added a provision so schools can publish in student handbooks the notices required to inform students of their right to not participate in the daily Pledge of Allegiance. It was part of a similar, standalone bill, filed in reaction to controversy in Escambia County.
Then with only minutes notice, state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, successfully added an amendment 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.
The provision was originally part of a separate bill (HB 1155) by Stargel that was ready for a Senate vote. That bill would have retaliated against the FSBA for previously suing the state over a voucher-like program that Republican lawmakers supported by barring the FSBA from using taxpayer money in future lawsuits.
Facing scrutiny from Democrats and some Republicans, Stargel averted a possible defeat on that bill by postponing a planned vote Wednesday. Instead, she pursued the amendment on Gaetz's bill to let school board members send their district-paid dues to whichever association they wish to belong to. The amendment potentially diverts state funding from the FSBA toward the coalition, which was founded last year.
It got the most discussion as Gaetz's bill was taken up on the floor, and Democrats accused Stargel of playing politics with local school boards.
State Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, said Stargel's proposal benefits billionaires Charles and David 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, such as Miami state Sen. René Garcia, said lawmakers are allowed to choose which national organization they belong to, so school board members should have the same freedom.
Among the various proposals included in HB 7029, the proposed law would:
prohibit 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.