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Senate Appropriations could salvage, advance major education proposals today


Among a slate of bills the Florida Senate's large Appropriations Committee will take up today are two relatively simple education bills (SB 524 and SB 1166) that Sen. Don Gaetz wants to transform into sweeping measures that include many of the most high-profile education policy changes lawmakers are considering this session.

Tacking on numerous proposals en masse is a way for lawmakers to salvage foundering or stalled bills as the end of session nears -- a process Gaetz called "fairly routine."

"If you have some good ideas that have received strong support in both houses, you try to create a balanced approach," Gaetz said. "The point is to look for issues that have had substantial merit and substantial support and give them an opportunity to be heard in Appropriations and heard on the floor and negotiated with the House."

Gaetz, R-Niceville, filed the 59-page, strike-all amendment for SB 524 on Wednesday, which includes such controversial issues as the "Best and Brightest" teacher bonus plan and proposed reforms for capital funding to charter schools and school districts. (More here.)

A couple senators are seeking to tweak Gaetz's amendment with late-filed changes of their own. For instance, Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores wants to allow teachers to have the option to qualify for the "Best and Brightest" bonuses using a "nationally accredited, advanced credential" in lieu of their high school SAT/ACT scores -- an alternative for which she previously advocated.

Even more sweepingly, Gaetz also filed an 85-page, strike-all amendment for his 3-page education funding bill, which folds in many of the House's education priorities. His proposed revisions to SB 1166 include: open enrollment for public students, charter school accountability measures, youth suicide and prevention, and high school athletics proposals.

On top of all that, Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, wants to use the opportunity to revive hopes for mandatory elementary-school recess -- which were dashed when Pre-K-12 Education Committee Chairman Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, declined to hear the bill this session. (The measure passed the House last week, 112-2.)

If the Senate Appropriations Committee approves Hays' amendment to Gaetz's changes -- which passionate "recess moms" hope they do -- senators will be doing an end-run around Legg's authority as a committee chairman. (More here.)

Gaetz on Wednesday renewed his commitment to ensuring the "Best and Brightest" teacher bonuses get a thorough vetting in the Senate. Almost half of the chamber's 40 senators could get a chance to vote on it today (through Gaetz's vast amendment on SB 524), since 19 members serve on the Appropriations Committee.

The bonus program rewards "highly effective" teachers based on their SAT/ACT scores in high school. It's a priority in the House, which voted last week to extend it. House education budget Chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, calls it a retention and a recruitment tool to encourage smart high school students to become educators.

But the program has been marred by criticism that it's not a fair way to reward teachers -- there's no proven correlation between student performance and teachers' high school exam scores -- and that it discriminates against older teachers and those who are minorities.

The Senate had previously been contemplating its own version of the proposal. That bill barely passed its first committee last month and hasn't been heard again since. Gaetz never took it up in his Senate education budget committee, which met for the last time on Wednesday.

Instead, Gaetz is folding in the House's proposed language for "Best & Brightest" into the amendment he wants the Appropriations Committee to adopt today on SB 524.

"As I looked at the language, I felt that the House had been sensitive to some of the questions and even criticisms about the workability issues: the deadlines, the dates and that sort of thing," Gaetz said. "I felt the House language deserved to be heard in the Senate."

The Senate's language, however, would have allowed more teachers to qualify. It previously seemed a more amenable compromise to senators who were hesitant to buy in to the concept.

Teachers would still need to be rated "highly effective" but their SAT/ACT scores would have only needed to be in the top 40 percent (as opposed to the top 20 percent). The Senate's previous bill also required teachers to have two years' experience, instead of allowing first-year teachers to qualify solely on their ACT/SAT scores, as they can now.

House and Senate leaders seem to support an up-or-down floor vote in the Senate on "Best and Brightest," but they're not ruling out enacting it through language in the final budget -- which was how the program was enacted this year.

"That's always possible this year," Gaetz said, "but since 'Best & Brightest' and some of the other issues are topics we've had in the budget for a year, I felt the best thing to do was also provide the opportunity for a substantive debate on it, not just a budget debate."

"The plan is take the bill up (Thursday), try to see if we can't help Sen. Gaetz get that package out of committee so that it can be considered by the full Senate," Appropriations Chairman Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said. "We're not thinking much farther down the chessboard than that."

If the Appropriations Committee approves the changes to Gaetz's bills and passes them, SB 524 and SB 1166 will go straight to the Senate floor for consideration.