1,800-page bill would finish education overhaul
By ALISA ULFERTS, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Universities could conduct their own labor negotiations. Parents could easily look up their rights under the law, and those of their children. Local school board members could set their own pay.
Those changes, and many more, are proposed in a 1,800-page bill that lawmakers will debate in a special session beginning Tuesday to update Florida's school code.
It's not the sexiest stuff on the Florida Legislature's plate this year, but it's important enough to the education legacy of Gov. Jeb Bush that he ordered lawmakers back to the Capitol a week after the bill died in the final hours of the regular session.
No other matters will be considered during this time, despite efforts to expand the purpose of the special session.
"Lots of people have asked us to expand the call to health care issues, to public safety issues, and we said no," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan. "It's a little like a game of hearts. You throw down one amendment and the other side throws two down and then you're in an amendment war."
Why is the bill so important? Mostly because it puts the finishing touches on a massive reorganization of the state's education system that places everything from kindergarten to post-graduate studies in the hands of a super State Board of Education. Under the old system, separate boards governed K-12, community colleges and universities.
Florida is the first state in the nation to try this new system, and Bush is determined to make it a model for other states to follow. Also, as the main vehicle for education issues, the bill includes other Bush priorities, such as ending the practice of promoting children who can't read from one grade to the next, known as social promotion.
The bill, as thick as a metropolitan phone book, rearranges all the education laws into a format that's easier to read. It also re-enacts the state's higher education laws before they expire in January. And it brings to life a buzzword gaining momentum around the Capitol these days: devolution, the move to push decisionmaking from the state to the most local level possible.
Universities would have more say over their budgets, their operations and their programs than before, beginning with their new status as public corporations rather than state agencies.
"It means we don't have to pay attention to a lot of the rules that" state agencies do, like purchasing requirements, said Bob Bryan, a lobbyist for the University of Florida.
Universities and colleges could use private banks instead of depositing their money in the state treasury. They could negotiate their own labor contracts, instead of relying on the state. And they could keep the title to any land or facilities they buy with private dollars instead of turning it over to the state, Bryan said.
But higher education isn't the only area affected by the changes in the school code, and the sheer size of the bill makes some anxious that amendments could slip in unnoticed.
That's what happened during the regular session, when lawmakers' attention was divided among hundreds of bills, and about 76 amendments were added to the House's version of the revision.
"It turned into being far more complicated than we'd hoped because people had their own personal agendas," said Wayne Blanton, head of the Florida School Boards Association. Lawmakers proposed everything from eliminating school board members' pay to creating a financial assistance program for students to use at private, for-profit colleges including religious schools.
Neither of those issues is in the compromise bill the House and Senate have tentatively worked out.
Rep. Jerry Melvin, R-Fort Walton Beach, is the chief architect of the plan in the House. He said he hopes the Legislature can pass the bill without unnecessary delay or debate.
"Everybody's already said what they need to say," Melvin said.
But some senators aren't so sure. Although a joint House/Senate conference committee had ironed out key differences, some senators were outraged that the House waited until Friday afternoon to send them the mammoth bill. Senate President John McKay refused to extend the Senate's session to take up the package, and lawmakers went home with the bill unpassed. The Senate had drafted its own bill, much shorter than the House's, but had agreed to amend the House bill.
"My concern with the bill is that we got it at 2 in the afternoon on the last day of session," said Sen. Alex Villalobos, the Miami Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee. Although he agrees in principle with the House proposal, "the devil is in the details, and we needed an opportunity to go through it," Villalobos said.
Senate Majority Leader Jim King said the bill's best chance is for lawmakers to stay focused on it instead of trying to bring up other issues.
"You get yourself into a situation where there's room for leverage," King said. "Not every piece of legislation needs to be a chip on the board of gamesmanship."
-- Staff writer Julie Hauserman contributed to this report.
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From the Times state desk
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