Veto schools bill and ‘starvation-level’ K-12 spending, critics urge Gov. Scott

Gov. Rick Scott faces mounting pressure from school superintendents, teachers unions and parent groups to veto $23.7 billion in base funding to K-12 public schools next year — as well as a controversial $419 million education policy bill, which lawmakers unveiled and passed in the span of just three days at the end of their annual session.

A rejection of the main education funding alone would force lawmakers back to Tallahassee for a special session to redo that part of the budget, which is almost a third of the $82.4 billion in overall state spending approved for 2017-18.

The governor and I agree on one thing — There is a man-made crisis at play here that challenges the values of the state of Florida.

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho

Scott hasn’t yet said how he might act on either the budget itself or HB 7069, the 278-page bill of sweeping K-12 reforms that was negotiated in secret in the session’s final days. It includes controversial incentives for charter schools, $234 million in bonuses for top teachers and principals, and an amalgamation of other policy changes — such as forcing districts to share with privately managed charter schools millions of dollars in local tax revenue earmarked for capital projects.

Miami-Dade schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho offered some possible insight Monday morning into Scott’s thinking as he left a closed-door meeting with Scott at Trump National Doral.

“The governor and I agree on one thing: There is a man-made crisis at play here that challenges the values of the state of Florida,” Carvalho said. “With $3 billion of surplus revenue at the beginning of session, to end up with a historically low increase in overall [K-12 education] funding… that may very well define the state — what we stand for and what we value.”

Critics, like Carvalho and Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, say the Legislature’s meager boost in school funding — an extra $24.49 per student, or 0.34 percent increase from this year — is insufficient and will actually cause a net decrease in funding districts use to run their schools. Some counties would lose millions of dollars compared to this year’s funding level.

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Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the United Teachers of Dade, said the “starvation-level education budget” lawmakers passed “neglects the very children it is tasked with serving.” “It will have a corrosive effect on our neighborhood public schools. The state has the revenue; they just need to invest it in our children,” she said.

The groundswell of opposition began before the Legislature passed its 2017-18 budget package on May 8 and has only surged since. Much of the outcry specifically targets HB 7069.

“The details in this bill substantially hurt public schools, our students, teachers and our community,” Runcie said. “I think the right thing for the governor to do is to veto this.”

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Runcie said HB 7069 is “our biggest concern” more so than the K-12 funding itself, because unlike annual spending which is revisited every year, the bill “makes structural changes in public education that are more permanent.”

“It only passed by one vote,” Runcie added, noting the Senate’s narrow approval. “That’s not a call to action in support of this bill. That is a clear indication there’s something amiss here, not only with the process but the contents of the bill.”

Scott’s office says he is “reviewing” HB 7069. He doesn’t yet have the main budget or HB 7069 on his desk. Once the Legislature sends those and other budget bills to him, he’ll have 15 days to act. He can veto select portions of the main budget as he chooses, but he can only accept or reject policy bills, like HB 7069, in their entirety.

There is so much good in [HB 7069]. Those opposed to this bill seek to limit choice and continue directing power away from parents and into the bureaucracy.

Erika Donalds, past president of the Florida Coalition of School Board Members

Carvalho and Runcie are joined in their opposition by leaders of several other county school districts — such as Pinellas, Palm Beach, Polk, Duval and Volusia — who are also rallying for a veto. Pinellas schools Superintendent Michael Grego sent a letter to Scott Friday specifically asking him to reject both K-12 spending and HB 7069.

Grego said the massive policy bill is “replete with problematic legislation” — such as the $140 million “Schools of Hope” plan, which he described as a “misguided” effort to give taxpayer money to “private charter companies outside of Florida and allow them to employ uncertified teachers and administrators in their Florida operations.”

“We’ve already seen private charters shutter their doors in Pinellas after failing to raise student achievement in high poverty areas or after misappropriating taxpayer dollars,” Grego wrote. “Our students will be better served if we maintain high standards and continue to invest in the strategies driving favorable results in the state’s most struggling schools.”

MORE: “Parents, school leaders urge ‘no’ vote on mammoth education bill”

The “Schools of Hope” program would also offer some aid to existing failing schools, but that help is capped at $2,000 per student in only 25 schools. Therefore, a majority of the program’s dollars would go to specialized charter operators that would essentially compete with those struggling neighborhood schools.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and his Republican caucus — who crafted the bill with agreement from Senate Republican leaders — have tried to counter the negative reception of HB 7069 with an aggressive social media campaign urging Scott to sign it.

Other supporters are largely limited to special interest groups that support the expansion of charter schools — such as the Jeb Bush-founded Foundation for Florida’s Future, the Florida Charter School Alliance and the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board members, which represents just 50 of the 356 elected school board members statewide. (A director on the coalition’s board is Martin County School Board member Rebecca Negron, wife of Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart.)

“Governor Scott believes in empowering parents and expanding education options, so he should be thrilled with this legislation,” said Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member and past president of the coalition. (Her husband is Naples Republican Rep. Byron Donalds.)

Proponents, like Donalds, blame “misinformation” about HB 7069 as the reason it’s getting such criticism.

“HB7069 contains bold initiatives designed to help the children who need it most. There is so much good in this bill,” Donalds said. “Those opposed to this bill seek to limit choice and continue directing power away from parents and into the bureaucracy.”

Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.