Key decisions await Rick Scott on education

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The biggest battles on the education front in the 2013 legislative sessions have already been fought and largely decided: Educators will get $480 million in pay raises, though not precisely how Gov. Rick Scott had asked, and the Senate killed a bill allowing parents more of a say in the future of failing schools, reports Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida.

But there were several more high-profile bills that moved through the process, dealing with everything from how the Florida Virtual School is funded to how schools should address “cyberbullying.” Many of those still wait for decisions from Scott on whether to sign or veto them, and some people have taken to lobbying the governor by email on what he should do.

HIGH SCHOOL DEGREES: Another one of the initiatives that lawmakers say is the most wide-ranging has already been put into law: Scott signed the bill (SB 1076) in April. The 144-page bill creates two “designations” for high school degrees, each with different requirements, with one aimed at encouraging students to work toward industry certification.

The measure has been praised by business groups and educators, in part because it would free students who choose one of the designations from being required to pass some courses — such as Algebra II — that are aimed at college-bound students. Business groups also say the bill will more closely tie the education system to employers’ needs.

“Senate Bill 1076 will make sure our students are prepared for college and careers and have the skills to compete for jobs in an ever-competitive global marketplace,” Scott said during a ceremony marking the signing of the bill.

VIRTUAL SCHOOL, TUTORS: A budget conforming bill dealing with education (SB 1514) is coming under fire for major changes to the funding that would flow to outside providers of services. Part of the bill would slice into the money provided to the Florida Virtual School by revising the way the state’s main funding formula applies to the 16-year-old program.

Private providers say the change will do away with an unfair advantage that the virtual school receives on the funding formula. In many cases, that would mean the virtual school might go from getting one-sixth of the cost of educating a student to splitting one-seventh of the cost with the student’s brick-and-mortar school. That will discourage public schools from allowing their students to enroll in the classes.

“Students are already being denied access to critical FLVS courses as a result of this bill,” wrote Taylor Sampson, whose email indicates a link to the online school but doesn’t say how.

Tutoring providers are also complaining about the fact that the bill allows the lapse of a provision of law requiring school districts to use 15 percent of their federal funding on academic help for lower-income children. Media reports have raised questions about some of the providers.

But Todd Walden, a Pasco County resident who has a tutoring company, wrote to Scott that those are exceptions to the rule when it comes to providing “supplemental education services.”

“While there have been scathing stories about certain company’s practices within SES, the majority of the providers are providing effective and quality services,” Walden wrote. “I am asking that you do not sign the Senate bill and preserve tens of thousands of FL jobs [affected] by this bill.”

However, it seems unlikely that simply refusing to sign the bill would reinstate the 15 percent set-aside.

Another new bill dealing with virtual education (HB 7029) aims to encourage the use of massive open online courses, known as MOOCs, in Florida schools. Out-of-state companies would be able to provide the courses under the change, and “blended” courses that include some online instruction and some classroom time would be exempt from class-size requirements.

STUDENTS WITH DISABILITIES: Some of the most emotionally charged discussions around education this year took place on a bill that ended up passing both chambers unanimously: SB 1108, a measure pushed by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine. Parents showed up to give often-emotional stories of how their children would be affected.

The measure gives parents more influence on the individual education plans, or IEPs, that are used to guide the education of children with disabilities. For example, parents would have to sign off on plans to send their child to an Exceptional Student Education center, which specializes in educating those with disabilities.

The Foundation for Florida’s Future, an education advocacy group chaired by former Gov. Jeb Bush, hailed the measure.

“This bill will be life changing for Florida families,” said Patricia Levesque, the organization’s executive director, after the Senate vote. ” … These are life-altering decisions, and parents should be fully informed and engaged in the process. The support witnessed on the floor today spoke volumes about the Senate’s commitment to making this a reality for moms and dads.”

Lawmakers also approved a bill (HB 461) aimed at standardizing some procedures for IEPs for students with hearing difficulties.

BULLYING, SAFETY: Lawmakers also unanimously approved a bill (HB 609) that would crackdown on “cyberbullying” in public schools. The bill would expand what school districts are allowed to punish at school and when children are not at school — if the non-school bullying affects education. Supporters say the bill simply catches up to new realities when it comes to education.

But not everyone supports the measure. Daniel Daly Jr., writing to Scott from Santa Rosa County, urged a veto.

“School officials are not law enforcement,” he wrote. “They will become law enforcement of the Internet for school age kids and abuse their power if the[y] see a message that they do not like.”

And after debate about a range of policy solutions, and the approval of funding for a study of security measures in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Conn., the Legislature passed one measure (SB 284) dealing with emergencies. The measure allows private schools to be notified by first responders about emergencies and makes sure public schools spell out which agency is supposed to contact them.

BIG BILLS: An omnibus education bill (HB 7009) would make a slew of changes across the board, including:

–Adding both new accountability measures and new flexibility for charter schools. High-performing charters would be allowed to boost their enrollment annually, and the Department of Education is charged with proposing a standard contract for charter schools.

–Giving school boards the ability to set up a public “Innovation School of Technology” that could get much of the same flexibility as charter schools get if they use new technology in instruction.

–Barring students from being taught by low-performing teachers in the same subject two years in a row, though parents could allow districts to ignore that rule in the case of extracurricular courses.

Another large bill (HB 1664) makes several changes regarding educators, but the most-watched provision might be one aimed at making sure classroom teachers are only assessed based on the students they teach.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including,,, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.