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Best & Brightest, charter school funding reforms have new pathway in Florida Senate


Some of the most controversial education measures being discussed during the 2016 legislative session could have a new vehicle for passage in the Florida Senate, indicating a possible deal between House and Senate leaders to get these proposals through before session ends in two weeks.

Senate education budget committee Chairman Don Gaetz, a Republican senator from Niceville, is offering a sweeping amendment to SB 524 -- which the full Senate Appropriations Committee is due to consider on Thursday.

If the committee accepts the amendment and passes Gaetz's bill, it goes straight to the Senate floor from there. Gaetz was in committee this morning and not immediately available for comment.

The 3-page bill, as-is, deals narrowly with state university performance funding. But Gaetz has filed a strike-all amendment replacing the bill with a 59-page proposal that also deals with topics such as:

-- extending the controversial "Best and Brightest" bonus program for K-12 teachers;

-- reforming the funding formula for how charter schools receive capital dollars for maintenance and construction projects and how much school districts can spend on such projects;

-- enacting a "Principal Autonomy Pilot Program" in Broward, Duval, Escambia, Jefferson, Madison, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole counties to give principals more say in the governance of their public schools;

-- enacting a "competency-based education" pilot program for public schools in Lake, Palm Beach, Pinellas, and Seminole counties, among others that would qualify;

-- enacting performance funding for Florida's state college system and a program to recognize high-performing colleges.

-- and, revising and expanding the "preeminence" program for state research universities.

Several of these measures exist in other bills -- some of which, on their own, are having a hard time passing the Senate.

For instance, the Senate's proposal for "Best and Brightest" barely survived an initial hearing last month in the form of a bill by Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity.

The teacher bonus plan -- which is in its inaugural year -- awards "highly effective" teachers that scored in the top 20 percent when they took their ACT/SAT exams in high school. Legg's proposal lowers the threshold to qualify to the top 40 percent and senators amended it to delay eligibility until teachers have two years' experience.

The proposal is a priority for the House, but Senate leaders, including Gaetz, have said they're reluctant to agree to extend the program without first allowing the full Senate to vet it. They didn't get that chance last year, although the measure was tacked on to the final budget. (Gaetz previously said the Senate is withholding funding for the program in this year's proposed budget until they're satisfied.)

However, the proposal that surfaced in Gaetz's amendment mirrors the House's original plan, indicating a significant shift in the Senate's thinking.

Gaetz's amendment matches the version that was in a comprehensive education bill -- sponsored by Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the House education budget chairman -- that passed the House last week. (That measure also included the performance funding changes for colleges and universities and the "preeminence" program for research institutions, included Gaetz's amendment.)

Meanwhile, the capital funding issue was vetted and endorsed by the Gaetz's education budget committee two weeks ago, but it was not assigned its own bill number at the time, so SB 524 could now be the vehicle for it.

Gaetz's plan counters a reform proposal Fresen initiated midway through session, which is ready for consideration in the Florida House after a favorable vote in the House Education Committee last week.

Both bills place restrictions on how districts use local and state tax revenue to pay for capital projects. It subjects those dollars to a state cap on what it takes to build space for each student and it imposes penalties on districts that exceed that cap.

Both also change how charter schools -- privately managed but publicly funded -- can get state capital dollars.

Fresen's bill would force districts to give charter schools a cut of their local tax money and change how they qualify for state dollars. It would reduce the amount of years charter schools have to exist (from three to two) in order to qualify, but requires they have no more than two-straight years with grades of less than a "B," unless a school served mostly low-income children. 

Gaetz's plan changes the funding formula altogether to give priority in funding to charter schools that help primarily impoverished students or those with disabilities, and it makes ineligible any charter school that uses dollars for "private enrichment." Charter school operators would have to sign a sworn statement under oath that their facilities that are owned by either a government entity, a non-profit organization or a person that is “not an affiliated party of the charter school.”