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Florida Pro: Chambers working together to pass ed policy priorities, but budget battles loom ahead

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by Daniel Ducassi (1/9/2018)

TALLAHASSEE — Following a tempestuous run-up to the 2018 legislative session, it looks like smooth sailing for leadership priorities dealing with education policy — but big questions remain about the education budget.

After the governor vetoed Senate President Joe Negron’s signature higher education package last year, Negron's determined to get the changes he wanted done in this year's session, which begins Tuesday. He’s tweaked his strategy this time around, splitting the changes to the state college system into a bill separate from the Bright Futures Scholarship Program and university system changes.

Another change is aimed at protecting the permanency of the change to Bright Futures, putting the funding directly in the bill.

The bill, S.B. 4, would provide about $130 million in funding, more than $100 million of which would go toward expanding Bright Futures benefits to cover 100 percent of tuition and fees, along with another $27.5 million for the summer expansion for the second-level scholarship, Medallion. The bulk of the funding would come from the Florida Lottery and slot machine revenue. A vote may come as early as this week.

Senate leaders wanted to avoid a situation where the funding gets cut through line-item vetoes even if the policy is signed into law; or, as was the case with the Senate's higher education bill last session, where the policy bill was vetoed but the funding for its initiatives stayed in the budget.

Leadership in both chambers appears to be coordinating the quick passage of their education priorities.

“The House has a identical bill [to S.B. 4] that has been filed by the majority leader, which gives me great confidence in their support of the policies in the bill,” said Senate President-designate and higher ed budget chair Bill Galvano. “I have had conversations with the House sponsor, and perhaps there may be some minor issues that we work out as it moves, but I do anticipate that the House will move the bill and eventually we will pass it this session."

He was also optimistic about the governor’s support of the policies and funding.

Meanwhile, Galvano is sponsoring an identical bill to House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s education priority, H.B. 1, that would establish a “Hope Scholarship” program to fund private-school scholarships. Corcoran already has voiced broad support for the Senate higher education plan, and one of his top lieutenants is sponsoring the House companion to S.B. 4. Meanwhile, Galvano, who is sponsoring S.B. 4, is carrying the identical Senate companion for the “Hope Scholarship” bill.

That, Galvano said, is no coincidence.

“I, number one, support the policy of providing an opportunity for students to escape a place where they’re being harassed or bullied,” he said, adding that it is important to have "commensurate levels of leadership on both these issues” in both chambers to allow for "a more fluid, meaningful negotiation of these issues as they go through the process."

Despite the broad support for S.B. 4, there is still some question about how the House will receive the more controversial part of Negron’s higher ed agenda: revamping the state college system.

State college presidents have launched a public relations blitz against the proposal, arguing it would ultimately hurt the low-income people and minorities who make up the bulk of their student populations.

And they appear to have an ally in House higher ed chair, Rep. Elizabeth W. Porter (R-Lake City), who has publicly criticized the measure. But it’s unclear whether her opposition will fade given the House speaker’s support for the bill and the prospect that his education priorities may share the fate of Negron’s.

Galvano was confident about that bill, too, noting it passed both chambers last year despite some opposition. But he added that "it's important to revisit some of the areas of concern, especially in light of the veto that occurred last year that was largely based on the components of the state college reforms,” so he wants to make sure the governor’s office is "in the loop."

The bill number for the “Hope Scholarship” program is no accident. Corcoran held a press conference to unveil the plan before the bill had even been filed, and has consistently talked up the measure on social media. But after a major win for his agenda with the passage of FL HB7069 (17R) last year — much to the chagrin of the teachers union and more than a dozen districts that are challenging the law — it’s not clear what other bills beside H.B. 1 Corcoran holds dear in the education world.

But one certain fight he'll take on is the $500 million gorilla in the rotunda: whether to use property tax money that would be collected as result of rising property values to help fund public education. Nearly $200 million in new funding will be needed next year just to keep pace with estimated growth in the school population of more than 27,000 students. Not baked into that estimate are the more than 11,200 displaced students, so far, from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands who enrolled in Florida school districts after Hurricane Maria devastated their homeland.

Gov. Rick Scott’s budget pitch proposes using $534 million in local property tax money — $450 million in required local effort — to boost the ed budget. So far, Senate budget leaders are on board. But Corcoran has voiced his adamant opposition to the idea, blasting it as a tax hike.

Because of the magnitude of the question, the issue could spill over into broader budget negotiations and could come down to how much leverage the Senate’s new budget chairman, Rob Bradley, (R-Fleming Island) can muster against the House in the inter-chamber, zero-sum budget back-and-forth.

It’s possible Corcoran could take some quick victories, wrap up the budget early and call it a day so he can go campaign for governor. It could be a relatively subdued session when it comes to K-12 policy changes in the House after Corcoran was able to get so much of his education agenda through last session.

“Compared to last year, I think this year will be rather quiet,” state Rep. Chris Latvala (R-Clearwater), the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee chairman, told POLITICO. "There was so much stuff that was passed last year in [H.B. 7069] and what not, that as far as [committee bills], we may do one or two of them, but I don’t anticipate having a lot of landmark legislation.”

However, there could be some notable action coming out of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee.

"There could be a PCB, there could be conforming bills,” said Chairman Manny Diaz. He told POLITICO he’s had “preliminary discussions” with the Senate about whether there should be a change to categorical programs under the Florida Education Finance Program. That includes things like instructional materials, research-based reading instruction, safe schools, student transportation, supplemental academic instruction, teachers classroom supply assistance and digital classrooms.

Diaz singled out the supplemental academic instruction category in particular. By law, it has to be used by the 300 lowest-performing elementary schools in the state for an extra hour of reading instruction. He floated the idea of changing the requirements to target a smaller number of struggling schools in an effort to get the money to go further for each school.

The idea is to give those schools "more resources up front to try to turn the school around before they got to that third year where they have to implement another option.” Also being discussed with the Senate, he said, is whether to provide more money for mental health funding and other wraparound services for struggling schools.

Diaz also suggested there could be more than one bill dealing with early learning, including performance funding and a proposal to merge some of the early learning coalitions together to “make them more efficient.”

And he said one issue that’s "still a work in progress” is the funding mechanism for H.B. 1. The scholarships would be funded through a voluntary system whereby someone can donate $20 out of their car registration.

“Any time you go to an opt-in on those kind of things … you’re working off a projection,” he said. “We’ll have to work through that to get that perfected."

There is still a strong possibility of budget disagreement over higher ed funding, though state Rep. Larry Ahern (R-Seminole), who chairs the Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said funding for the Bright Futures expansion, including restoration of the Medallion scholarship coverage, is first in line. “If there’s a place to start, that’s it right there,” he told POLITICO.

Other financial aid programs, like the Sunshine Scholarship Program proposed by state Rep. Shevrin D. Jones, (D-West Park), are also on Ahern's radar. Of that program specifically, he said he thinks a cost of $4 million to $5 million is doable. It’s unclear what the program will cost, but the sponsor scaled back the proposal in its first committee stop with the aim of bringing down the price tag.

Less of a priority, Ahern said, are member projects, typically aimed at funding initiatives or construction at particular institutions. He expects to hear as many as 50 of those bills in his committee over the next two weeks.

“Just because we hear them doesn’t mean they’ll get any funding,” he cautioned. But it does "put them in play” for budget negotiations.

There’s some agreement in both chambers about restoring the $30 million in funding that was cut from state colleges last year. But Ahern flagged some proposals he’s seen that would restore it as a mix with performance funding.

“We think it should go back the way it came in,” he said.

Another unsettled budget topic is how much construction funding will be handed out to universities, with state Rep. Carlos Trujillo (R-Miami), the House budget chief, calling for a pause in the Public Education Capital Outlay and Debt Service Trust Fund, and only funding previously funded, but incomplete, projects.

Some traditional public school advocates fear it could be the calm before the policy storm. In contrast to the broad support for S.B. 4, H.B. 1 passed its first committee on a party-line vote. Critics note the bill makes no attempt to address bullying and harassing behavior itself. And they also suspect it’s just a ruse to funnel more kids into the state’s voucher-like scholarship programs.

“It’s unfortunate that we put so much energy thinking about how to expand the charter program or how to expand tax credit scholarships, but not often do we speak about making sure our schools have the resources to move students to become proficient,” said Jones, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.

A couple notable bills dealing with tax credit scholarships this year include FL SB564 (18R), sponsored by Sen. Dana Young (R-Tampa), along with its House companion, FL HB399 (18R), sponsored by Rep. Amber Mariano (R-Hudson). Those bills would allow parents to request individual education plan reevaluation for students receiving McKay scholarships from school districts to revise their “matrix of services,” which is tied to specific funding. FL HB829 (18R) and FL SB1080 (18R), also sponsored by Republicans, make tweaks to the eligibility criteria for McKay Scholarships.

A number of advocacy groups are also bogged down fighting more abstract governance battles.

For example, the teachers union, alongside nurses and other public-sector workers, blasted a measure they say is old-school "union-busting.” That legislation, FL HB25 (18R), was fast-tracked by House leadership, and is ready to be heard on the floor after a single committee stop. Under the proposal, public-sector unions that see their total dues-paying membership fall below half those eligible will be required to petition the Public Employees Relations Commission for recertification.

Meanwhile, school boards are fighting proposals at the Constitution Revision Commission to put semi-retroactive term limits on them and prohibit compensation for school board members. Another proposal to limit school board terms is also embodied in FL SJR194 (18R), sponsored by Sen. Greg Steube (R-Sarasota).

There still could be some debate over a gun legislation and schools this year. FL HB621 (18R) and FL SB1236 (18R) would allow principals and district superintendents to designate certain people as allowed to carry concealed firearms on school grounds. But if recent history is any indication, controversial gun bills will have a hard time moving in the Senate.

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