Federal

Chaotic Fla. Session Puts School Issues On Hold

By Alan Richard — April 17, 2002 4 min read
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Florida lawmakers will trudge back to the state capital soon for their second special session in as many months, after failing to pass a rewrite of the laws that govern the state’s education system.

The Republican-controlled legislature closed its regular session in March without resolving issues crucial to school leaders. Among the unresolved items were a revamping of state law to merge K-12 and higher education and coming up with a state budget for the next fiscal year.

Legislators returned to Tallahassee the first week of April for a special session, but ended the four-day session on April 5 when lawmakers couldn’t agree on an amendment on religious expression in schools.

Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is expected to call the legislators back into session in the coming weeks to finish their business.

So far, the only thing the lawmakers have done is muddy the waters.

During this month’s special session, the House passed an 1,800-page revision of the state education law—the largest bill in state history, by some accounts.

Progress on the measure was slowed by a spate of amendments, most of which were eventually defeated, that covered a wide range of education topics. Plans to base school board salaries on district enrollment and another to cap class sizes and raise teacher salaries were killed. A controversial plan to abolish the state’s preschool system also failed.

More significant to the fate of the session, however, were amendments to clarify students’ religious freedoms in schools and to allow guns on school campuses if they were locked in the owners’ cars.

The firearms provision survived a vote in the Senate to remain part of its education bill. Supporters argued successfully that students who hunt should not be barred from carrying rifles in their vehicles.

But the religious-expression amendment ultimately blocked final action on the education law.

The House-approved plan would have affirmed the right of students to talk freely about their faith, to include religious references in school assignments, and to distribute belief-based literature while in school.

The Senate, whose GOP majority is considered more moderate than that of the House, made a final offer to pass the 1,800-page education measure—if the House removed the language about religious freedoms. Some Jewish lawmakers were offended because they were away for Passover when the provision was introduced.

But the House rejected the compromise and went home, leaving senators to vote the plan up or down. They adjourned instead.

Senate President John M. McKay didn’t allow a vote on the bill because “he had concerns, and it was clearly evident that many members, both Democrat and Republican, had concerns, too,” said Karen Chandler, the spokeswoman for Mr. McKay, a Republican.

The abrupt end to the special session left Florida without a revised education law to reflect significant changes to the state’s K- 12 and higher education systems, and without a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Florida voters approved a referendum in 1998 calling for a “seamless K-20" system of schools. The legislature responded by creating the appointed job of education secretary, establishing a new seven-member state education board appointed by the governor, and abolishing the elected post of commissioner of education.

Lawmakers also switched the governance of state universities, replacing a state board of regents with individual boards of trustees appointed by the governor. (“Florida Breaking Down Walls Between K-12, Higher Ed.,” Feb. 13, 2002.)

An overhaul of the education code would revise current state policies to reflect those and other changes.

Fight Ahead

This month’s legislative ordeal sets the stage for a political war in November, when Gov. Bush and every seat in the legislature will be up for election, said Jim Watts, a vice president for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, which monitors education policy in the Southern states.

Mr. Watts said Democrats are licking their political chops, watching conservative GOP leaders and their moderate colleagues slug it out. The dissension could bode well for Democrats in the fall.

In the meantime, Mr. Watts said, the disarray might keep Florida education stuck in a political morass.

“This is worse than those robot television shows,” he said, comparing the legislative battles to the machine-on-machine fights now popular on cable TV.

Ruth Melton, who follows the legislature for the Florida School Boards Association, said the lack of results during the special session left Gov. Bush looking like a weak leader. She expected him to act to change that impression.

Mr. Bush did so late last week, saying that the special session had been “a waste of time,” and he floated a compromise that he hoped would resolve the legislative fight over religious freedom in schools, then get the school codes passed quickly during the next special session.

Some House Republicans favored religious expression without many precautions. Meanwhile, some Democrats and education lobbyists wanted to allow schools to discipline students who are disruptive or who harass other students while expressing their religious beliefs.

The governor wants the state to produce and distribute a handbook that outlines students’ religious rights on K-12 campuses.

Ms. Melton said Florida school districts back freedom of religious expression for students. “We also need to have protections that make sure other students’ rights are not infringed upon,” she said.

She added that if the firearms amendment was part of the final education law, the school boards’ group would recommend that districts stick to their local policies, most of which already ban any weapons from campus.

Lawmakers were awaiting word last week on when the next special session—and the next round of political wrangling over education—would begin.

A version of this article appeared in the April 17, 2002 edition of Education Week as Chaotic Fla. Session Puts School Issues On Hold

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