TALLAHASSEE — Setting up a potential procedural clash with the Senate, the Florida House on Thursday passed a major education bill, including a voucher-like program for bullied students, and directly linked the legislation to its budget plan.
In a 66-43 vote, the House passed the 198-page bill (HB 7055), which has dozens of policy issues impacting the kindergarten-through-high-school system.
Among the measures included in the bill:
— “Hope Scholarships,” which would allow students who are bullied or suffer other abuses in public schools to receive voucher-like scholarships to transfer to private schools.
— A $9.7 million program that would allow low-performing readers in second through fifth grades to obtain private services, like tutors.
— A requirement that could force teachers’ unions to disband if their membership falls below half of the employees they represent.
— An effort to consolidate and strengthen state oversight of publicly funded private-school scholarship programs, including the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship Program.
— A provision that would require a reduction in school-board member salaries if they are not aligned with starting pay for district teachers.
Approval of the controversial education bill came hours after the House voted 85-27 to approve an $87.2 billion budget (HB 5001) plan for the fiscal year starting July 1. The plan links the $21 billion public-school portion of the budget to the passage of the education bill.
Also Thursday, the Senate passed its proposed $87.3 billion budget in a 33-1 vote. But the Senate has, at least initially, declined to accept the House education bill as part of the budget negotiation process, which will occupy lawmakers in the second half of the 2018 session.
Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, reiterated their position that the Senate is willing to consider the numerous education policies proposed by the House, but the measures need to go through the normal committee process.
“It doesn’t offend me that a bill is 10 pages or 200 pages, as long as it goes through a proper process of vetting and people have an opportunity to amend, take out, put in, change language,” Bradley said.
He and Negron also said many of the “school choice” initiatives in the House bill are likely to win support in the Senate.
In fact, earlier in the day, the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Appropriations Subcommittee voted 6-2 for the Senate version of the “Hope Scholarships” bill (SB 1172).
“There’s no excuse regardless of who or how or what you support to leave a child trapped or parents helpless from taking someone out of an environment that is caustic and dangerous,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, a top Senate leader who is sponsoring the legislation.
In the House, Democrats harshly criticized the massive education bill, slamming the policies in the legislation and the way House leaders want to link it to the budget-negotiation process. The bill passed largely along party lines, with five Republicans — Chuck Clemons of Newberry, Tom Goodson of Rockledge, Sam Killebrew of Winter Haven, Kathleen Peters of Treasure Island and Rene Plasencia of Orlando — voting against it.
Rep. Loranne Ausley, D-Tallahassee, said the bullying scholarship provision, which would divert more than $40 million in sales taxes, is another example of shifting public funding to charter and private schools.
“These programs are slowly killing our traditional public schools,” Ausley said. “The proverbial death by a thousand cuts.”
Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, was among Democrats who contended that the bill includes so many provisions that it would likely violate the constitutional mandate that bills be limited to “one subject.”
“This train of a bill is headed to an unconstitutional crash,” Berman said.
Rep. James Grant, R-Tampa, dismissed that assertion, noting all the provisions are related to education.
“I would call this a republic at work,” he said. “Big ideas are debated, and lives are changed.”
House Education Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, said the policy changes in the bill are aimed at helping students and their parents, rather than relying on the existing school system.
“Nowhere are we telling parents what to do. We are opening up the choices for them,” he said. “It’s the greatest accountability system we have in the world.”