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Both Sides Pressure Scott On Schools Bill

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With a controversial and wide-ranging education bill now on his desk, Gov. Rick Scott faces intense pressure from both sides as he weighs whether to sign or veto the legislation.

Rumors have begun floating that Scott will sign HB 7069 later this week, but officially the governor maintains that he hasn’t made a final decision.

Scott received the bill late Monday; he has until June 27 to sign the proposal, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.

The 278-page bill, which emerged in the closing days of the regular legislative session, deals with everything from charter schools and standardized tests to sunscreen and school uniforms.

The legislation was a priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, and opponents fear that Scott agreed to sign the bill in exchange for having his priorities approved during a special session last week.

But at an event Tuesday to celebrate the outcome of the special session, Scott told reporters he was still considering the measure.

“We all want school choice,” Scott said. “We want to make sure our kids go to the best schools. … With regard to 7069, I’m still reviewing it. I know the speaker’s very passionate about it. It was something that was very important to him.”

The Legislature’s passage of the bill was greeted by a firestorm of protest from school boards, superintendents, the state’s main teachers and other education advocates. Scott even made comments that hinted that he was considering a veto.

Critics of the bill said provisions meant to help charter schools move into neighborhoods with academically struggling schools, as well as a portion of the bill that would allow charter schools to tap local property-tax dollars for school construction, would lead to the privatization of Florida’s education system. They also slammed the last-minute appearance of the legislation, which folded together a slate of education bills that had been debated separately.

In recent weeks, though, supporters of the legislation have cranked up their efforts to promote the bill. Some conservative groups and school-choice supporters have worked to get parents of students served by choice programs involved in the fight.

They point to the proposal’s more popular components, like teacher bonuses and mandatory recess for elementary students.

Backers also emphasize that, while charter schools are often operated by private groups, they are public schools that might help turn around troubled school districts.

The result has been a deluge of tens of thousands of messages for and against the bill pouring into Scott’s office. As of Tuesday afternoon, the governor’s office said it had received 23,440 phone calls, emails, letters or petition signatures backing the legislation. Opponents had generated 22,734 messages against it.

Opponents have dominated in phone calls and emails, while supporters of the bill seem to favor letters, perhaps because of letter-writing campaigns by schools that would be helped by the legislation.

Those who support the bill concede that they were slower than opponents to organize for the legislation.

Shawn Frost, president of the conservative Florida Coalition of School Board Members, said supporters have now managed to rally parents affected by the legislation.

“What I’ve seen is, parents have been alerted to the fact of what it would mean to them. … I think a big part has been educating parent groups about the truth of 7069,” said Frost, whose group supports the measure.

The LIBRE Initiative, a conservative Hispanic group tied to the Koch brothers, has launched an online email drive and sent out mail pieces in English and Spanish promoting the bill. In a statement last month, the group’s coalitions director, Cesar Grajales, said the bill “aims to free Florida’s neediest students from this unacceptable education status-quo.”

“We urge Gov. Scott to quickly sign this bill and remove unnecessary barriers to new charter schools so our students don’t have to remain stuck in schools that are failing to provide a quality education,” Grajales said.

Those fighting the bill question the outpouring of support, suggesting that misinformation and so-called “astroturfing” efforts might be behind some of it. They also highlight reports that some charter schools have offered extra credit or other benefits for families that sent messages of support for the bill to Scott.

“I think that what we’re seeing is sort of a manufactured situation,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of the advocacy group Fund Education Now, which opposes the measure.

And opponents have not backed off. Two Democratic lawmakers issued letters Monday renewing calls for Scott to veto the bill.

“While there are small pockets of good policy hidden within this bill, it is a monstrosity when coupled with the multitude of bad policies that have been included,” wrote Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Fort Lauderdale.

About Brandon Larrabee - News Service of Florida

Brandon Larrabee is a reporter for the News Service of Florida, a news service to which WUFT News subscribes.

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