Heading into the 2019 Legislative Session, state lawmakers on either side of the aisle aren’t seeing eye-to-eye on education. Like they have in previous years, school choice and school safety remain polarizing issues.
Governor Ron DeSantis held a press conference after the Florida Cabinet’s last meeting before the Legislative Session. On K-12 education, DeSantis kept to his consistent message: Expand choice in all its forms.
“I also think that parents should have access to public schools that are not run by the school district, because you have an opportunity to try new things,” DeSantis said, drawing on an example from a recent visit. “I just spoke at the Latin Builders Association luncheon last week – they run an LBA academy that’s focusing on the construction trades, and the business side, and in terms of the skilled workforce. And I think it’s been successful.”
Comments from Florida’s Senate and House leaders in the weeks leading up to Session have them seemingly in lockstep with the governor’s priorities. House Speaker Jose Oliva outlined his education priorities during the Associated Press’ recent Legislative preview.
“You all know that for years, we’ve pursued a path of the money following the child – we think that’s important. It has nothing to do with teachers, it has nothing to do with public versus private, or public charter, or traditional public,” Oliva said.
Chair of the Senate Education Committee Manny Diaz, Jr. has filed a bill that looks to help fulfill one of DeSantis’ chief campaign promises: pushing 80 percent of K-12 spending into the classroom.
“I think what we saw over the past 30 years is, we saw different philosophies where school districts – especially large ones, just got bloated administratively,” Diaz said.
Diaz wants his bill to put teachers more in control of the available resources. He adds defining “in-classroom spending” at the legislative level is key to making that 80 percent a reality. But, he says, it’s not going to happen overnight.
“I think an 80 percent goal is not a one-year goal. I think you have to look at starting something that will get us there in the next four years,” Diaz said.
Diaz and his fellow Senate Republicans are pushing a new scholarship program that would pay for more low income families to enroll their children in private schools.
The scholarship would be funded using the Florida Education Finance Program, the main funding mechanism for public schools. If the legislation passes, the scholarship would be capped at 15,000 recipients to start. Senate leaders are also backing the expansion of community schools in areas of high need, which provide wrap-around services including healthcare and counseling.
Members of the Senate Democratic Caucus largely condemned the Republican education package. Senate Democratic Leader-Designate Gary Farmer calls it “the final stage of a decades-long plan to privative public education in Florida.”
School safety also promises to be among the principal issues in education this Session. That puts all eyes on the Guardian Program, which lawmakers created last year with the intent to arm public school teachers. Senator Diaz briefed reporters earlier this month on plans to expand the program.
“We received the report of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission. And we took upon that some changes involving school security hardening, funding flexibility, and also expansion and flexibility with the Guardian Program, to match what is going on across the state,” Diaz said.
Not all districts across the state are so eager to comply. Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, who chairs the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Commission, said some districts aren’t participating in various aspects of the program.
“One of the school boards in the state is having a discussion about whether it’s a good idea to have threat assessment teams. Seriously? It’s in the law that you will have them,” Gualtieri said. “And they’re having a discussion about whether they think they should have them.”
Democratic Legislators are taking steps to give districts an out.
Senator Janet Cruz of Hillsborough County has filed legislation that would have all counties receiving school safety money regardless of their compliance with the Guardian program. That money would be prioritized to boost districts’ school resource officer programs.
For House Minority Leader Kionne McGhee, the idea of arming teachers hits close to home.
“I am 100 percent against arming teachers. It doesn’t make sense. Especially when you live in a household with a teacher, who constantly reminds you that it is very dangerous as it is now, when scissors are thrown across the classroom,” McGhee said. “But to only add into that mix, a firearm that can dislodge projectiles that cause bodily harm, is wrong.”
Legislators will convene for the start of the 2019 Session Tuesday.