Florida lawmakers struck a compromise Friday to pass a sweeping "school choice" education package that includes significant changes to how the state's 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.
As part of a last-minute deal, the House rejected efforts by the Senate to crack down on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.
The Senate gave up on its plan to ban "private enrichment" in trade for the House accepting a revised formula that weights capital funding in favor of charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities -- which was, in part, what charter schools were intended for when they were established in the 1990s.
But Democrats in both chambers blasted House Republicans for not agreeing to a "legitimate" solution to safeguard public money given to charter schools and to ensure the schools aren't used as a means to line business-owners' pockets.
"This is very bad and the lack of accountability is really amazing," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. "There are some good charter schools -- they’re engaging in innovation -- but many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except plundering the public treasury."
An Associated Press analysis a few months ago found that, since 2000, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding given to charter schools that later closed.
How charter schools are eligible for state capital funding was a sticking point of House Bill 7029, which House and Senate leaders negotiated well into early Friday afternoon -- the last scheduled day of the 2016 legislative session.
The bill has been revised multiple times within the past couple weeks, with re-writes ballooning the bill to, at one point Thursday, 168 pages.
The multi-faceted bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.
The package also includes measures limiting school districts' spending on capital projects, allowing open enrollment for all K-12 public school students, granting immediate eligibility for high school athletes who transfer schools, and codifying public college and university performance funding in state law, among a dozen other policy proposals.