In part two of our look at the top litigation expected in 2018, a new law that’s drawing fire from most of Florida’s 67 public school districts is expected to remain prominent after the legislative session begins this week.
Mention House Bill 7069 to a school administrator or teacher, and more often as not you’ll get a dirty look. At least 14 county school boards have filed two constitutional lawsuits challenging the law, contending in part that it undermines local control of public schools.
“It’s not going away very fast; the school boards say they’ve got a constitutional right to run these schools, and the state is just going too far,” said Jim Saunders, Executive Editor of The News Service of Florida.
One of the main sticking points, according to Saunders, involves charter schools -- a school that receives government funding but operates independently of the public system in which it is located.
“One of the elements of this bill requires school boards to share local property tax money with charter schools,” Saunders says. “And these school board say ‘The state can’t force us to spend our local property tax money on charter schools.”
Filed in Leon County Circuit Court, the challenges focus on issues such as part of the law involving another case filed by the school boards directly to the Florida Supreme Court. The justices said last month that the case’s first destination should be circuit court. And Saunders adds that these cases are in their relatively early stages.
“This was pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, who is a very big proponent of school choice,” said Saunders. “And a lot of the school choice proponents like what’s in this bill.”
“Between the $100 increase [per student] we did in the special session; between this piece of legislation we’re signing today, it is the greatest pro-family, pro-parent, pro-teacher session we’ve had maybe in the history of the state of Florida,” said Corcoran at the bill signing ceremony last summer.
House Bill 7069 also provides $419 million for schools. Santa Rosa County Superintendent Tim Wyrosdick says there’s much more in the bill that he doesn’t like, than what he likes. He calls the law an “onerous overstep” into local education and unconstitutional.
“It’s taking away rights of local school boards to operate their school system the way the elected public has asked them them to do,” Wyrosdick said. “And it’s almost arrogant. ‘We’re going to do this, whether you like it or not, we really don’t care if it’s good for education.’”
Rather than supporting public education, Wyrosdick believes the motives behind HB 7069 are far more about economic opportunities through private charter schools. He adds it’s also leading to modern-day school segregation.
“It is creating a dual system of education in the state of Florida; and what we’re seeing in public schools – especially in Florida – is that you’re creating a dual system of have and have-nots. And I do not believe that’s healthy for public schools.”
Among the 14 county school districts named as plaintiffs, only Bay County is in the Panhandle. For the most part, local districts are taking a wait-and-see posture, including Escambia County, where Malcolm Thomas is Superintendent.
“Let’s see if there’s going to be a legislative fix,” said Thomas. “If there is no legislative fix, then I think the only remedy may be to join the lawsuit.”
Jim Saunders at The News Service of Florida is skeptical about any such action in the 2018 regular session, given that Richard Corcoran will remain House Speaker.
“He is the biggest supporter of this bill,” Saunders said. “If somebody did propose changes or seek to make changes, he could block that. And I think that he would. One of the issues that he is focused on for the legislative session is a bill that would further expand school choice.”
That expansion would be through a tax-credit scholarship program, which is similar to school vouchers.