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    Rewriting of code stays on to-do list

    By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 24, 2002

    TALLAHASSEE -- Education was supposed to be a top priority of the 2002 Legislature. It turned out to be one of its biggest failures.

    When the session ended late Friday night, few education bills had survived a session dominated by tax debates, redistricting and infighting among the ruling Republicans.

    Gov. Jeb Bush had proposed a slight increase in education funding, and House and Senate leaders vowed to top him.

    But lawmakers left town with the entire $49-billion state budget undone, and now the governor plans to call a special session to finish it.

    First, Bush will call lawmakers back to settle differences over a massive rewrite of the state education code.

    The Senate's failure to consider the measure so angered Bush that he sent Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan to threaten a special session on Monday if it wasn't passed.

    "This could have been resolved all week," Brogan complained.

    The Senate's inaction angered House members, too. "I don't feel the Senate has been honest with us," said Rep. Jim Melvin, the Fort Walton Beach Republican who oversees education bills in the House. "I don't want to do anything that would help them at all this evening."

    Senate leaders complained that the House hadn't given them sufficient time to examine the details of the rewrite and refused to take it up.

    In the end, Bush relented, calling an April 2 special session to finish the education code.

    The code is arcane but central to Bush's education agenda.

    Last year, the governor led lawmakers to create a seamless education system, governing kindergarten through graduate school. Florida is one of the first states in the country to do so.

    The bill that died updated state laws to include those changes and re-enacted higher education laws before they expire in January.

    The huge bill included other Bush priorities, such as prohibiting schools from promoting children who can't read to the next grade, a practice known as social promotion.

    Once the education code is settled, lawmakers will turn to the state budget. How much to devote to education had been one of the biggest points of disagreement between the House and Senate.

    But now, the chief advocates for education spending in the two chambers, Sen. Don Sullivan, R-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, say there is little disagreement.

    Both proposed budget plans include a 2.5 percent tuition increase for community colleges and a 5 percent increase for universities, plus up to 5 percent more for graduate and out-of-state students. The House also would spend about $307-million less for public schools than the Senate, but the Senate plan relies on money the House insists doesn't exist.

    A proposal to give private school vouchers to any public school student who wants one also died. It never reached the House floor.

    The bill, called the "No Strings Attached Act," would have given school districts greater say in spending tax dollars. In return, any student who wanted to attend a private school or a different public school would have gotten a check from the state.

    The bill was pushed by Rep. Johnnie Byrd, the Plant City Republican in line to be the next House speaker. But it was opposed by Bush.

    A measure to strip away the pay of school board members died, as did a bill that would have required schools to post the "In God We Trust" motto.

    But students will spend a week in September each year learning about and reciting part of the Declaration of Independence.

    And some universities around the state will set up "Centers of Excellence" under a technology initiative bill that Bush successfully lobbied through the Legislature.

    The idea is to foster high technology around the state. Bush is seeking $100-million, but the most the Legislature has been willing to consider is $50-million.

    Like so much else in this session, that question was left to another day.

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