Lawmakers in education standoff

Published: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, May 1, 2008 at 12:02 a.m.

TALLAHASSEE - Nearly every major education proposal was thrown into flux Wednesday as state lawmakers in the House and Senate bombarded each other with lengthy wish lists outlining different reforms for everything from the FCAT to the operation of charter schools.

With just two days of the lawmaking session left, education leaders in the House and Senate say compromise suddenly looks unlikely.

"Ours is acceptable and theirs is not," said Rep. Joe Pickens, R-Palatka, the House schools chairman. "Differences of opinion currently are myriad."

According to the Senate's education chief, Sen. Don Gaetz, "We have made a number of changes to accommodate our House partners. I think it will be a test of process."

The standoff developed early Wednesday afternoon, when the House took a popular Senate bill that would have revised the way high schools are graded and tacked on about 60 pages of additional policy, some of it vetted by the Senate and some of it, such as a proposal on teaching foreign languages, never seen before.

Later in the day, the Senate refused to take up that plan and instead rolled out its own mega-proposal - using a widely supported teacher ethics bill as an anchor.

The two opposing plans have become what is termed in the Legislature as "trains" of warring legislation, packed so full even the sponsors struggle to describe the differences.

Here are examples of what is at stake in the final two days:

Teacher ethics: A proposal to keep abusive teachers out of schools, driven by a Herald-Tribune investigation showing these teachers were allowed to return to classrooms in different districts because of a poor state tracking system. Senators believe their version of this bill creates a higher standard for teachers.

School grading revision: A bill to include measures other than FCAT scores in the calculation of high school grades.

Charter schools: Reforms to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, to prevent widely reported nepotism. Senators believe their version creates stricter financial accountability.

"Rigorous standards:" House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, has lobbied that higher, "world class" standards for students be written into state law to ensure Florida students remain competitive. But critics say it is unnecessary because the Board of Education already periodically reviews standards to make them more rigorous.

Corporate tax credit vouchers: Expansion of a program allowing companies to divert taxes to a scholarship fund giving poor students vouchers to attend private or religious schools.

During an evening break from the House session, Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee, criticized his colleagues for combining the proposals into "take it or leave it" packages. "You don't even know what's in all that stuff when this happens," said Richardson, a member of the minority party who said he had nothing to do with the "train" proposals.

"They give it to you at the last minute, when the bill is being presented, and you don't have an opportunity to read it, let alone study it and analyze what the practical impact will be on schools. It's absolutely the wrong way to make public policy."

At the higher-education level, the House has not yet addressed the proposal calling for an overhaul of the college governance system - even though it is the favorite of Senate President Ken Pruitt, whose clout is amplified this year by it being his last at the helm.

His proposal creates a constitutional amendment asking voters to secure the Legislature's right to set tuition at state colleges. Pruitt did not earn a four-year degree himself, in part because of the cost, and believes the Legislature can best be trusted to keep tuition low.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said senators were "trying to establish what Marco (Rubio) would like for that vote."

"I think you could still see the Board of Governors bill but it would be traded for something," King said.

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