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Education bill, key to budget deal, clears the Senate by two votes

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Only one of the budget conforming bills debated in the Senate Monday drew a point of order — SB 7069, to implement the House’s ideas about charter schools and teacher bonuses.

It didn’t stop the bill from passing, on a vote of 20-18.

House and Senate negotiators have paired the bill with separate legislation carrying the Senate’s higher education agenda.

Sen. Gary Farmer raised the point of order, arguing that the education compromise violated multiple Senate rules. For example, he argued, it contained non-germane amendments; was considered in conference absent a roll call or quorum; and that the language wasn’t settled until hours following the conference committee.

Rules Chairwoman Lizbeth Benaquisto ruled against Farmer on all grounds, saying conference reports deserve more latitude than ordinary legislation.

“The conference report is a special case because the bill has been through all of its readings in both chambers, and comes to us, not on the part of a single senator, but as a product of a committee appointed to provide a solution to an impasse between the chambers,” she said.

In debate on the merits, Farmer denounced the package as “a piece of junk” and “a monstrosity.”

“The things that are in there and are not in there, combined, will without a doubt hurt our traditional public schools. They will hasten the privatization of public education,” he said.

“We’ve tried privatization in a number of different fields — prisons come to mind. It hasn’t really worked out all that well,” Farmer said.

The deal would provide $140 million for a Schools of Hope program, to lure charter schools to replace failing public schools, and $234 million for the Best and Brightest bonuses for high-achieving teachers and principals.

The Senate would get language requiring state universities to charge students per semester, so they could load up on courses and perhaps graduate sooner. There would be no tuition increases, but there would be increases in aid and scholarships.

In all, the measure changes 20 substantive areas of law.

Senators voiced concern throughout the broader debate Monday about the conference process. In this case, the Senate side saw the final House language around 7 p.m. Thursday, Senate negotiator David Simmons said.

He and staffers pored over it until 12:30 a.m. Friday, before the final conference by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron.

Sen. Tom Lee wanted to know: Did Simmons doubt the House’s good faith?

“I do not question at all their good faith. As a matter of fact, I applaud their excellent idea. I just think that it’s exceedingly difficult to be able to implement this,” Simmons said.

“There are some good things in this bill. But couldn’t we have hammered out more reasonable solutions that would have been kinder to our public school partners, and maybe not allowed the House to determine this great change in public policy?” Republican Doug Broxon asked.

“Each of us will have to make his or her own decision about this. Even the proponents in the House have acknowledged that there are problems … regarding implementation,” Simmons said.

For example, as many as 25 out of 200 struggling public schools could apply for extra money to run “wrap-around” services intended to help children overcome social problems, but would have two years to show progress. New charter schools would get five years, he said.

Sen. Kathleen Passidomo suggested a lot of misinformation is circulating about the bill. “Some of the policy issues you may or may not agree with, but it is not a piece of junk,” she said.

Democrat Lauren Book objected to sharing public school capital investment money and federal Title I money for disadvantaged students with charters.

“Very little of this is new,” Sen. Bill Montford said — rather, it contains a litany of proposals long rejected by the Senate. And charter operators once promised they never would seek capital money, he said.

“There’s a lot of good things in this bill. But there’s a lot of things that will have a detrimental impact on the districts this year,” Montford said.

Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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