Florida GI bill headed to Senate floor

By Jim Turner, News Service of Florida
Published On: Mar 06 2014 08:16:12 PM EST
Updated On: Mar 06 2014 08:24:34 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -

Two days after the House rapidly approved its version of the "military-friendly" Florida GI Bill, the Senate plan appears ready to pass muster on the floor.

Members of the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously supported the leadership-backed measure (SB 860) on Thursday, despite some minor concerns about the addition of language into the proposal regarding charter schools on military bases.

The bill, heavily supported by business organizations along with military and veterans groups, is now ready for a full Senate vote next week, said Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, who is leading the charge on the bill.

The Senate proposal doesn’t exactly match the House proposal (HB 7015), but both would increase educational aid and job assistance for veterans and National Guard members, increase funding to upgrade the state's National Guard facilities and buy land around U.S. military bases.

Among the differences, the House proposal would create a non-profit organization to promote Florida a veteran-friendly state. The charter school issue, also included in the House version, shouldn't hinder the Senate bill's advancement.

"Our staffs have been working very closely, I think we're going to come together quickly," Altman said after the meeting.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, expressed concern that an amendment added to the Senate bill on Thursday could force the Hillsborough County School District to become responsible for a charter school at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa that the school board rejected in December.

"My interest is that they've already denied the application and it's in appeal, and that this could supersede that," Joyner said.

The amendment encourages "military installation commanders to work with the state commissioner of education to increase military family student achievement, which may include the establishment of charter schools on military bases." The amendment also requires school districts to operate and maintain control over the schools.

In rejecting the MacDill charter school, the Hillsborough School District board questioned who would be in charge of the school that would be run by Charter Schools USA.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, who sponsored the amendment, said the language wouldn't impact the MacDill situation. Instead, the amendment "encourages MacDill to work with the school districts as they establish a charter school which has those students on the military base," Richter claimed. "It does not address or attempt to address the process for appeal or anything of that nature."

Joyner said she accepted Richter's explanation but still cast the lone vote against the amendment.

Overall, the Senate version of the Florida GI Bill - envisioned as a state version of the World War II-era GI Bill crafted to help veterans assimilate into civilian life – comes with no price tag. The Senate staff analysis simply notes that the "fiscal impact will depend on legislative appropriations."

In contrast, the House would cost the state at least $33.5 million in the next fiscal year.

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