Federal

Chaotic Fla. Session Puts School Issues On Hold

By Alan Richard — April 17, 2002 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
Innovative Funding Models: A Deep Dive into Public-Private Partnerships
Discover how innovative funding models drive educational projects forward. Join us for insights into effective PPP implementation.
Content provided by Follett Learning
Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Federal Miguel Cardona in the Hot Seat: 4 Takeaways From a Contentious House Hearing
FAFSA, rising antisemitism, and Title IX dominated questioning at a U.S. House hearing with Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
6 min read
Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in Washington.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona testifies during a House Committee on Education and Workforce hearing on Capitol Hill on May 7 in Washington.
Mariam Zuhaib/AP
Federal Arming Teachers Could Cause 'Accidents and More Tragedy,' Miguel Cardona Says
"This is not in my opinion a smart option,” the education secretary said at an EdWeek event.
4 min read
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona speaks during Education Week’s 2024 Leadership Symposium at the Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Arlington, Va., on May 2, 2024.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Federal Opinion Should Migrant Families Pay Tuition for Public School?
The answer must reflect an outlook that is pro-immigration, pro-compassion, and pro-law and order, writes Michael J. Petrilli.
Michael J. Petrilli
4 min read
Image of a pencil holder filled with a variety of colored pencils that match the background with international flags.
Laura Baker/Education Week via Canva
Federal New Title IX Rule Could Actually Simplify Some Things for Districts, Lawyers Say
School districts could field more harassment complaints, but they can streamline how they handle them, according to legal experts.
7 min read
Illustration of checklist.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + iStock / Getty Images Plus