Florida has major education proposals still on the table in 2021

TALLAHASSEE — With one week to go in Florida’s 2021 legislative session, state lawmakers have a wide slate of education policies and unsolved budget proposals left to hammer out before they can leave Tallahassee.

Some of the more pressing issues that lawmakers still need to resolve include top leadership priorities, controversial proposals and packages with the potential to reshape education for state’s youngest learners and college students.

As the clock ticks closer to sine die, there is “no lack of urgency” at the statehouse, but “an evidence of thoughtfulness” as the Legislature prepares to put a bow on the session, according to House Speaker Chris Sprowls.

“What you’re not seeing in the way of fireworks … is reflective of my relationship with [Senate] President [Wilton] Simpson, with the current relationship between the House and Senate,” the Palm Harbor Republican told reporters on Thursday.

Priorities: Top Sprowls priorities for the state workforce and student reading programs stand out among the more notable proposals currently left on the table.

The House last week unanimously passed legislation to overhaul the state’s scandal-plagued workforce system by creating an Office of Reimagining Education and Career Help within the governor’s office, which currently does not have a specific position coordinating workforce efforts. Senators on Monday are slated to discuss their take on the measure, which is now identical thanks to a “great work product” between the two chambers.

Another Sprowls priority, a new home book delivery program for K-5 students, is experiencing a bumpier ride.

The Senate throughout budget negotiations has played hardball with the funding for the proposal, dubbed the “New Worlds Reading Initiative” in FL HB3 (21R). The original House budget included $50 million for the program, which was shut out of Senate budget offers until Friday.

The latest Senate spending plan sets aside $75 million in the higher education budget to help carry out the idea.

Still, the House introduced a new $125 million ask on Friday to use federal coronavirus stimulus funds on the program, which calls on the Department of Education to tap a state university to coordinate the book deliveries.

Some 557,344 students would be eligible to participate in the initiative, which will “help kids dramatically change the trajectory of their life,” Sprowls told reporters Thursday.

Higher education: The Senate on Monday is slated to consider legislation that would grant colleges, universities and the state Board of Education legal protections from Covid-19 lawsuits.

If senators take the House version of this proposal, which has morphed into a full-on higher-education package, it will call into question the fate of contentious policy changes surrounding Bright Futures scholarships.

The House bill, FL HB1261 (21R), includes two policies that the Senate sought in its legislation to reconfigure Bright Futures: a dashboard on career and debt data and new parameters for schools tied to financial aid.

However, the bill notably lacks the most controversial piece of the Senate measure that specifies future award amounts for top Bright Futures scholarships that would be set in the state budget starting in 2021-22. The scholarships currently cover between 75 percent to 100 percent of tuition, a policy that has been in place since 2018 when the Legislature restored the top awards following cuts triggered by the recession.

The Senate proposal, FL SB86 (21R), has been on the back burner for two weeks as other bills have been moving through the Legislature. Although the House has yet to take to the Bright Futures changes, it’s possible the scholarship alterations can end up elsewhere in the budget.

The fierce criticism lawmakers faced over the Bright Futures tweaks are a “misnomer,” according to Sprowls.

“I understand there is grave concern about that language, but the reality is that everything we appropriate in the [budget] is subject to legislative appropriation,” Sprowls told reporters on March 14.

The House’s wide-ranging higher education package also includes a “buy one, get one free” tuition and fee waiver for high demand courses, a policy that ties in with attempts from lawmakers to drive more students to degrees that produce jobs.

Early learning: House members on Thursday unanimously passed a massive early learning proposal that would put the Department of Education and Board of Education in charge of 30 regional early learning coalitions and a $1.3 billion budget, a change that private schools lined up against this session.

The Senate scaled back its early learning overhaul by cutting out proposed accountability measures that private schools opposed, creating a key difference between the two bills. At one point, the legislation appeared dead, but it was brought back to life when Senate leaders scheduled a last-minute appropriations meeting.

Senators are scheduled to hear an early learning bill on Monday. The chamber can opt to take up the House version or stick with its own proposal and send that back to the House.

The House also introduced a new $166 million budget line for early learning teacher grants on Friday, and a $7.5 million budget toward sought-after pre-kindergarten reforms.

Last session, the Senate declined to take up an early learning measure on the floor after it passed the House.

Progress monitoring: The House is pushing for a new progress monitoring system to track students from pre-K through eighth grade at least three times a year starting in 2022-23.

The screenings are intended to measure student progress in early literacy, math and a host of other competencies with the goal of identifying students with reading deficiencies or learning disorders like dyslexia.

House members on Wednesday unanimously backed the proposal, FL HB7011 (21R), and the Senate is geared to consider similar legislation on Monday.

Funding, though, is proving to be a sticking point.

House leaders are pushing for $14.5 million toward the student literacy programs that the Senate has shown no interest in during negotiations.

There’s still more: On top of these education issues, the Legislature has packages on school safety, civics and charter schools to sort through in the coming days.