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A lesson to be learned
June 2, 2017

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Florida's $82.4 billion budget finally landed on Gov. Rick Scott's desk Wednesday.

And buried within the 451-page appropriations measure awaiting his consideration is a highly controversial omnibus bill for education funding.

HB 7069 has drawn extensive criticism from a plethora of sources, from virtually all of the state's public school associations representing teachers, superintendents and school board members - who say the measure would fiscally devastate public education - to Sunshine Law proponents such as the First Amendment Foundation -who take strong issue in how the 274-page amalgamation of a variety of education proposals was hammered out behind closed doors in the waning hours of the legislative session.

HB 7069 also has drawn fervent support from organizations representing parent and charter school organizations that long have promoted school choice and what they say is parity funding for alternative public schools.

The $23.7 billion K-12 education budget is such a hodge-podge that it has been easy for each side to pluck provisions that support their respective positions in the pass/veto clamor that has grown ever louder since the $419 million plan breezed through the House and squeaked by the Senate on May 8.

It's also easy for those of us outside the fray to gag on the less palatable portions of a medley both sides expect us to consume without question - something unlikely to happen when Gov. Scott sits down to the table on this one.

As the budget and its various components await the governor's signature, veto or line-item consideration, we strongly urge those on the opposition side of HB 7069 to move beyond their arguments for veto to examine why a measure they consider so onerous garnered the support to pass in the first place.

For that is key to not only this battle but for all the subsequent ones to come if the education budget component and all its unrelated peripherals is rejected and kicked back for another round of legislative debate.

Our state representatives are listening to constituents, who, for a variety of reasons are demanding options to traditional public schools.

Among those urging Gov. Scott to sign the K-12 education budget bill are not only the anti-Common Core contingent and charter school lobbyists, but parents who want the ability to choose their child's educational environment and who reject what is being offered by public school systems that for generations faced little competition - or opposition.

Consider:

While still a small percentage of students, homeschooling numbers have increased throughout the state, growing from 72,408 students in 2011-12 to 83,359 in 2015-16, according to figures from the Florida Department of Education. In Lee County, the families of 2,010 students chose to homeschool in 2015-16.

The numbers are more dramatic for families choosing charter schools. Of Lee's 92,263 school students for 2016-17, 12,244 opted for charter schools. Still others went the private school route.

Statewide, charter school enrollment is growing rapidly, rising from 98,755 students in 2006-07 to 270,301 in 2015-16.

Why?

There is a perception, particularly among middle-class parents, that charters offer a "private school" environment with more course-of-study choices. Lower-income parents simply want an alterative to lower-performing district-run schools.

HB 7069 promises money for both - money that currently is directed toward public schools whose officials maintain it's a much more complicated issue than simply "having funding follow students."

We agree; charter schools are no panacea.

Like district schools, they range, in terms of student performance numbers, from top-tier to near bottom.

They do not have to accept children with special needs.

They can limit enrollment to a select demographic, steered by transportation provided - or not- and parental volunteer requirements.

Unlike district schools, they can close, as seven have here in Lee County.

But all that does not change the fact that what parents want - indeed, what parents demand - is an alternative to a public school system that statewide had 42 percent of its third graders unable to achieve the minimum reading scores for fourth grade promotion this year.

Here in Lee that number was 43 percent with another 29 percent who "may need additional support for the next grade/course."

The bulk of the anti-HB 7069 rhetoric centers around the need to keep the dollars. To do that, districts need to keep students - i.e. demonstrate to parents that the best education for THEIR child is that provided by traditional public schools.

For make no mistake - even if Gov. Scott vetoes the K-12 education bill, even if the budget is re-configured in a manner less fiscally stressful to the educator-driven organizations screaming for rejection - the issue of giving parents the choice they demand is not going away nor is the "funding follows students" argument.

Learn this lesson well.

Or expect to fight this sharing-of-dollars battle for things like construction and maintenance with charter schools again.

Perhaps with a school vouchers initiative as an added battle front.

- Breeze editorial

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