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Legislature shouldn’t sneak laws through back door


Published:   |   Updated: August 8, 2014 at 04:13 PM

We’re all taught to play by the rules. In a civil society, we rely on rules and procedures and laws as we go about our daily routine. When people break the rules, they’re expected to be held accountable for their actions — whether it’s within your family, on the job or at school, or in our society as a whole.

The Legislature is no exception. There are rules and procedures in the Florida Constitution, in state statutes and in the House and Senate chambers that set out the right way to do things — such as pass a law.

Incoming Senate President Andy Gardiner, in a July 25 commentary in the Tampa Tribune headlined “Union Trying to Limit Choices for Students with Disabilities,” seemed to miss that point when talking about legislation that he favors concerning personal learning accounts for students with disabilities. This provision and another bill expanding the state’s corporate voucher program failed to pass in the Legislature on the day before session ended. The bills were filed, went through the committee process and ended up not being approved.

On the final day of the session, both these failed bills were attached to Senate Bill 850. When SB 850 was filed in February, it was a five-page bill that expanded Florida’s collegiate high school program. During its travels through committees in the Florida House and Senate, additional provisions were added that were unrelated to collegiate high schools. Three weeks from the end of the legislative session, the bill had grown to 40 pages and included provisions dealing with public school improvement and accountability and amendments to the Career and Professional Education Act.

The Florida Constitution contains restrictions to the Legislature’s authority to create laws, stating that “every law shall embrace but one subject … and the subject shall be briefly expressed in the title.” The legislation passed on the final day of session contains multiple subjects — including the expansion of vouchers — and these multiple subjects are not expressed briefly in the bill’s title.

And it’s not just that the bills were attached at the last minute, but they were changed from their final versions that had failed the day before. For those reasons, the Florida Education Association filed a lawsuit challenging the way SB 850 became law.

The FEA opposed the expansion of the corporate voucher program, and we had serious concerns about accountability for the personal learning accounts for students with disabilities. We find it ironic that the state wants to move these students with disabilities to unaccountable private providers at the same time it is not properly funding the programs in public schools, and districts are forced to reduce staffing for these students. These programs get 14.4 percent less money than they got seven years ago, despite higher demand. Districts are assigning paraprofessionals away from these programs because of lack of funds.

These laws failed to pass the right way. So legislative leaders came up with a way to circumvent the rules.

This was a backdoor way for legislative leaders to enact measures that had already failed. We all have to be accountable for our actions, even the leaders of the Florida Legislature.

Joanne McCall is the vice president of the Florida Education Association.

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