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David Simmons: We’re not done yet with HB 7069

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Interparty, cross-house fighting over the controversial education omnibus bill House Bill 7069 is not yet over, nor are efforts to stop provisions that could spell death sentences to underperforming public schools, Republican state Sen. Dave Simmons vowed Wednesday.

And the bill might face a legal challenge led by state Sen. Gary Farmer, a Parkland Republican who has become the bill’s most outspoken critic.

At a panel discussion, with three Republican state representatives, held by the Seminole County Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, Simmons sharply criticized the “Schools of Hope” provisions in HB 7069, which he voted against, saying it is setting up underperforming public schools and their students to fail completely.

Simmons was sharply countered by state Rep. Bob Cortes, also of Altamonte Springs, who argued that efforts have failed to save failing public schools, and now it is time to save the children, by providing the funding to charter schools to create alternatives.

On the last day of the regular session, a completely overhauled HB 7069 appeared and passed the House of Representatives 79-38, and the Senate 20-18. Gov. Rick Scott signed it last week in Orlando. Among other things — many of which he said he likes — Simmons decried the HB 7069 provisions he said creates a death penalty for public schools without giving them the resources to turn things around and creates a route for private charter schools to take over.

“I don’t think the book is completely written yet on this bill you’ve probably all read about, House Bill 7069,” Simmons said. “It was the amalgamation of at least 20 different subject matter issues that the house put into a bill. Various of us voted against it even though there were a lot of good things in it.”

After Wednesday’s panel discussion, Simmons said efforts are underway to still change the bill, including an effort by Farmer to research whether the bill could be challenged as a violation of the state’s single-subject rule.

Farmer’s office said Wednesday he was working on addressing the bill, but would not confirm or deny any specifics.

Simmons said if that does not happen, he and others opposed to the Schools of Hope provisions as written would take up the challenge of one of the bill’s principal engineers, Rep. Manny Diaz, and seek to fix it in the next session.

In particular, Simmons charged the Schools of Hope program’s provision that requires schools with consecutive Ds or Fs to be shut down, move all the students to other schools, or create a “district-operated” charter school, which essentially could not be run by the district.

What the underperforming schools need, Simmons advocated, is money for “wraparound” student services that address a wide variety of the students’ issues, to allow the students to concentrate on learning. At Simmons request, $25 million was inserted into HB 7069 for that, but he said that was not nearly enough, and the result still is a likely death sentence for too many schools.

“We need to treat the entire child. We need to make sure they’re not coming to school hungry. We need to make sure we can feed them when they’re there. We need to provide appropriate health services. We need community services, which have been found to be so successful,” Simmons said. “They cost extra money, these wraparound services, in fact, an additional $2,000 per student.

“I disagree with the idea of taking traditional public schools and having them address these issues without the resources before the hammer drops in two years,” Simmons said. “I know there are good things in that bill. It’s not the way to package it; it’s not the way to do it.”

Cortes, vice chairman of the House Education Committee, responded that such programs have been tried without success, and that it is time for Florida to try a bold new course. He said charter schools from other states demonstrated they could turn around underperforming schools to success.

“There are 115 failing schools in Florida; 115 failing schools! Not for one year, not for two, some of them five, some of them 12, even successive,” Cortes said. “By the way, the current turnaround option exists right now … It did not work. They still continued to be an F school.

“So the speaker’s plan is to try something innovative,” Cortes said, adding, “The end goal is there should be no student in the state of Florida stuck in a failing school.”

The debate primarily involved Simmons and Cortez, while state Reps. Jason Brodeur of Sanford and Scott Plakon of Altamonte Springs looked on or discussed other legislative matters. At one point following Simmons’ and Cortes’s exchanges on HB 7069, the moderator turned to Brodeur and invited him to comment.

“Let’s talk about weed!” Brodeur replied.

He was, of course, referring to the medical marijuana implementation bill he helped write.

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]

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