Florida spends 51 percent of all the tax revenue it collects on education — which, if you ask folks in the education world, is a blessing and a curse when it comes to the Legislature.
The amount of money spent commands the lawmakers' attention, and that's the level of interest that education deserves. The curse: Sometimes that attention leads to the kind of ill-advised tinkering that ends up wasting everyone's time and energy.
Going into the 2017 legislative session, though, it feels like the good kind of attention has prevailed so far, with a number of substantive proposals worthy of debate.
In the Florida Senate, President Joe Negron declared early on that his top priority this session will be to start the process of making "our good universities great" by elevating them to "national elite destination universities" like the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The vessel for that goal is Senate Bill 2, which would significantly sweeten scholarship programs like Bright Futures, bolster efforts to recruit world-class faculty, and improve certain graduate programs, among other measures. The bill also would push the system to get students through their studies "on time" in four years, thereby minimizing their college costs and getting them into the workforce faster.
That's not so good news for students inclined to take the scenic route to their degrees; SB 2 stands to affect the system in ways that eventually would steer students down a faster path. But the bill, if approved, would be a boon to those who receive the top Bright Futures scholarship, the Florida Academic Scholars award. Beginning this fall, the award would cover 100 percent of tuition costs at a state public university, plus certain fees and $300 each fall and spring for books and other expenses.
More than 45,000 students would benefit, and it would cost the state an extra $126 million next year. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is on a fast track, set to reach the Senate floor in the first week of the session.
As for K-12 schools, leaders in both chambers say they have heard the growing calls to tame state testing and are pushing major changes to two pillars of Florida's accountability system that have been around for years.
"Maybe we've taken a good thing too far, and now it is time to bring some common sense to it," Sen. Tom Lee, a Brandon Republican and former Senate president, told a gathering of school superintendents earlier this year.
Two proposals (SB 926 and HB 773) would push state tests for English language arts and math to the last three weeks of the school year, addressing a long-standing complaint that Florida's springtime testing regimen begins too early and takes too much time from classes. The bills also would require the state Department of Education to investigate the possibility of allowing high school students to meet the graduation requirement by taking the SAT or ACT rather than the state's 10th grade test.
Another pair of bills (HB 131 and SB 1280) would remove the requirement that third-graders who perform poorly on the state's English language arts test be held back from fourth grade.
As is the case most years, some lawmakers will look to strengthen of charter schools. A big question left over from previous sessions is how to give charters a share of local tax dollars for maintaining and constructing buildings at a time when school districts with delayed projects of their own are clamoring for that money too. Many districts, including Hillsborough and Pinellas, have had to borrow heavily to keep up with the need.
House leaders said recently they plan to come up with a plan to accommodate both sides. The Senate, meanwhile, has been moving on the issue with a proposal to increase the maximum property tax rate school boards can levy for capital projects.
For more than 25 years, that rate was capped at $2 for every $1,000 of taxable value. Then, during the Great Recession, the Legislature lowered it to $1.50.
Now, some want to raise it to $1.70. They argue it's not a tax increase because its restoring money that used to be there, and it's optional for districts.
But other lawmakers, particularly House Republicans led by Speaker Richard Corcoran, disagree. "Raising taxes is just one of those things that, I think, in the end hurts more than it helps," Corcoran said recently.
How the two sides get past that fundamental divide over the next few weeks is anyone's guess.
And that is far from the only big money decision before them. One that will be closely watched is how lawmakers decide to deal with the controversial Best and Brightest bonus program, which for the last two years has awarded teachers bonuses based in part on their ACT and SAT scores from high school.
Many officials are itching to scrap the program in favor of a more equitable bonus.
Gov. Rick Scott has proposed spending $58 million on a variety of teacher incentives, a $9 million increase over what the state spent on Best and Brightest this year. Leaders in the Senate and House, meanwhile, are exploring a plan for $200 million in incentives that could be spread among many more teachers.
As for the teachers, they say they would happily lose the bonuses if it meant a boost in their regular pay.