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Published in Print: May 15, 2002, as Fla. Lawmakers End Impasse On K-20 Guidelines

Fla. Lawmakers End Impasse On K-20 Guidelines

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In their second special session of the year on education, Florida lawmakers last week finally set into motion the laws that give structure to the state's new K-20 system of schooling.

Legislators approved a thorough revision of the state's education codes on May 2, almost a month after their first special session ended with an emotional debate over students' rights to express their religious beliefs and to have guns on campuses.

The Republican-controlled legislature ultimately compromised around Gov. Jeb Bush's suggestion that the state distribute rules on religious expression in schools each year. An amendment that would have allowed students to keep guns used for hunting locked in their cars didn't survive.

The go-ahead from lawmakers is the latest step in Florida's work to combine the oversight of its K-12 system of schools with the state's community colleges and universities, yielding a so-called K-20 system. The changes to the education laws also help set the stage for this year's election, in which Gov. Bush, a Republican, is expected to face a challenge from either Democrat Janet Reno or Bill McBride, each of whom is targeting Mr. Bush's education agenda.

Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 that called for a "seamless" education system encompassing precollegiate and higher education.

Then, in 1999, lawmakers gave that amendment teeth when they approved changes in the way Florida's colleges and universities are governed and linked them directly with K-12 schools for the first time. ("Florida Breaking Down Walls Between K-12, Higher Ed.," Feb. 13, 2002.)

Another big part of the 1999 changes was the establishment of the Florida board of education as the state's new regulating body for both K-12 schools and higher education, replacing the governor's Cabinet.

The changes also replaced the elected commissioner of education with an appointed secretary of education; Commissioner Charlie Crist will leave office at year's end, and current Secretary of Education Jim Horne will take over as the appointed schools chief in January—if Gov. Bush wins reelection.

New Power

The school codes passed last week will allow the new board and state schools chief to restructure the state education department and will give the group the power to link K-12 schools with community colleges and the state's universities.

"It lays out the powers and duties of the state board of education and the appointed commissioner of education and gives the commissioner and the board the power to organize the agency," Kathy Mizereck, the legislative affairs director for the Florida board of education and the state education department, said of the new laws.

"It gives them—for the first time—enforcement authority in the K-20 system in the event someone does not follow the law or rule," she added.

Mr. Horne, a former state senator appointed by Gov. Bush as education secretary last year, said in an interview earlier this year that his plans include revamping and shrinking the state's education agency, establishing a system of accountability for higher education, and improved job training and dual enrollment between high schools and community colleges.

He also suggested that he'd like to use student test scores to more closely monitor teacher quality.

The revised education laws do more than give structure to the K-20 changeover.

For one year, they relax state restrictions on categorical parts of local school districts' budgets.

The legislature had taken similar action during a special session last fall brought on by a post-Sept. 11 budget crunch. Tourism in the state ran aground after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, temporarily crippling the nation's airlines and frightening many potential vacationers.

Extending the relaxed rules for a full year will allow school districts to move money around between spending categories as they absorb state budget cuts ordered by lawmakers last fall.

An amendment to the rewritten laws also delays the deadline by which Florida districts are supposed to end the use of portable classrooms. The deadline had been July 1 of this year. Now, however, districts must simply lay out in their five-year plans how they intend to move their students into permanent buildings, or how they will bring portable classrooms up to modern building standards.

Another big change was delayed: linking state funds to school districts with average daily attendance. The state had been scheduled to make the switch this year, but lawmakers put it off indefinitely, relieving some school leaders who say they're already burdened by the K-20 law changes, budget troubles, and the state's strict system of accountability.

A separate bill strengthened an existing state law that allows schools to retain 3rd graders who are not reading on grade level. The new law requires those students to receive extra help, but makes clear that students should not be promoted to the 4th grade simply because of their ages.

Finally, the revised laws allow people without traditional administrator credentials to be hired as principals.

Senate Majority Leader James E. King Jr., a Republican, called the new version of the laws—without the amendments on religion and guns—a plan that most lawmakers could agree on.

"There were some fairly controversial issues that made it implode on the first go-round," Mr. King said. "The new bill reflects the changes of the attitudes in both the House and Senate and is an infinitely better bill."

Election Help

For example, schools will be provided each year with guidelines for what kinds of on-campus religious expression that state and federal laws allow.

A proposed amendment would have allowed students greater freedoms to distribute religious literature and other actions that some education groups feared would curb school administrators' ability to keep order.

Mr. King said the "Reader's Digest" version of the laws will help educators guarantee students' rights while allowing them to avoid disruptions. He said religious expression became an issue after one school barred students from an annual event in which students formed a circle around the flagpole outside their school building and prayed.

The amendment to allow guns in locked cars on campuses was well-intended, but didn't stand up to public scrutiny, Mr. King said.

"I think the intent was great, but the implication was that you were allowing kids under 18 to have firearms at schools," he said.

In the end, lawmakers might have helped Gov. Bush kick off his election campaign. The governor said publicly several weeks ago that he was embarrassed when the first special session failed, giving his opponents some political firepower.

The gubernatorial campaigns of former U.S. Attorney General Reno and Mr. McBride, a Tampa businessman who has the endorsement of the Florida Education Association and recently proposed a 50-cent-per-pack cigarette tax he says will raise $500 million a year for schools—will soon shift into high gear.

Getting the revised school codes passed—solidifying the Republican-led effort to make the switch to the K-20 system that some Democrats oppose—may help Mr. Bush's cause.

"I think the governor certainly played a role, but all of us did," Mr. King said. "The original school rewrite-code discussion went into meltdown. It was a slam dunk the second time through."

Vol. 21, Issue 36, Pages 18,23

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