SCOTT KEELER | TIMES Left to Right: Rep. Richard Corcoran, R- Land O' Lakes, shares a laugh with Senator Joe Negron, R-Stuart, before the start of the 2016 Florida legislative session, Tuesday, 1/12/16 in Tallahassee.
The Republican-dominated Florida House and Senate on Monday passed a massive education package on Monday that would impose strict new regulations on a core constituency of Democrats: teachers' unions.
The bill requires that 50 percent of all teachers eligible to be members of a teachers’ union must be dues-paying members or else the union may not be recertified. Supporters said the rule was a common sense measure to ensure teachers’ unions accurately represent the will of the majority.
Teachers’ unions have vehemently opposed the measure, and said the fact that the Senate also passed a measure on Monday that would allow school staff to be trained and armed against school shooters added insult to injury.
The measure was changed Monday to restrict teachers who “exclusively” teach in classrooms, but union leaders said it will nonetheless create a more hostile environment in schools.
“I’m not sure when we became Public Enemy No. 1, but it’s clear this is a full out attack on public school teachers,” said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the statewide teachers’ union. “On one hand they want us to protect and be armed ... but they want to silence our voice.”
Even some Republicans said the union measure was extreme. Sen. Tom Lee from Thonotosassa broke with his party on this section, calling it “mean-spirited.”
“We do a lousy job of representing working class people and we should be ashamed of ourselves,” Lee said on the Senate floor. “We have to accept this poison pill and slap the teachers of Florida in the face.”
But Republicans heralded the bill’s many other measures, most of which are top priorities of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
HB 7055 creates new funding sources for several voucher programs so students can take the money the state would have used to pay for their public education and instead use it to help cover their tuition for private school.
The bill also allows tenants of commercial property to direct the sales tax of up to $57.5 million in rent away from the state’s general fund and into the account for two scholarship programs: the Gardiner scholarship, which is for students with mental or physical disabilities, and the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship for low-income students.
The bill creates the Hope Scholarship for students who are bullied or attacked at public school, and permits people buying cars to check a box and donate $105 of their sales tax to fund that voucher. The program has been one of the top wish-list items for Corcoran.
After the Senate passed the bill earlier in the afternoon, the House then accepted all of the Senate’s changes. The Legislature was sued after a similarly sweeping education bill, HB 7069, passed last year at the 11th hour without Senate input.
“Our leadership said, ‘We’re not going to do this again,’” said the Senate’s sponsor, Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples. “This is our work product.”
Democrats have asserted that the Hope Scholarship is simply an excuse to expand vouchers without ensuring the moved students aren’t again bullied at their new school. But Republicans said it’s a way to make sure harassed students aren’t “trapped.”
“There is no such thing as a a guarantee in life but what we can do is provide pathway and opportunity so people can get exactly what they need for the children that they love,” said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, who sponsored the separate bullying bill in the House.
Some other major changes in 7055 include:
• Creates Reading Scholarship Accounts for third-graders with low reading scores to be able get public funds for supplemental materials or tutoring
• Requires all schools to “conspicuously” display the state’s motto, “In God We Trust”
• Allows excelling principals to oversee multiple schools for extra pay
• Grants charter schools an extra planning year before they are required to open for students
• Reverses the HB 7069 requirement that districts share their “millage” property tax funding with charters, meaning districts will have more funding for infrastructure
• Waives standardized testing and instructional hour requirements for Marjory Stoneman Douglas students following the shooting.
It’s likely not a coincidence that the House also passed the Senate’s sweeping higher education bill about 10 minutes apart, as Senate leaders have publicly said they were willing to pass the House’s K-12 funding package in exchange for their high-priority university package.
It now heads to Gov. Rick Scott for his signature.