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Charter bill in Florida House challenged by school districts

floridaA bill that supporters say will make it easier for high-quality charter school chains to expand in Florida passed the House last week.

But in the final days of the Legislature, the measure is encountering opposition from school boards and others who say it muzzles some of their watchdog role over the new charter schools.

“People need to ask who do you hold accountable when all the local authority has been taken away and a charter school fails,” said Duval Board Chairwoman Becki Couch.

House Bill 7083 would make the process of applying to open a new charter school more streamlined, uniform and faster because the most important documents involved — the charter application and the contracts reached with local school districts — would be standard across the state.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who sponsored the bill, has said he wants controls over the charter schools, but he wants them to be transparent and uniform across the state.

Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, said the bill “is a walking lawsuit,” likely to be challenged by school boards claiming it usurps their constitutional authority.

This bill brings up important issues for Northeast Florida, school officials say, because national charter school companies eye this region for growth potential. Many have already opened schools in South Florida, saturating that market, and they are planning new schools farther north.

Currently anyone seeking to open a charter school must apply to the school district of the school’s future location. The school district becomes the “authorizer” of the charter school.

Charter applications are standardized across the state. They usually include pages of information on the particulars of how the school plans to operate, what curriculum and reading programs it will use, and how it will meet academic and financial standards.

The district’s school board must approve or deny the applications based on criteria set by the state. Most applications are approved and the few that are denied are usually appealed to the state, which usually lets the charter school open.

The House bill would affect what happens next.

Currently, the charter operators and the school district negotiate a contract, which can include matters not specified in the application but which are important to the district.

The House bill would short-circuit that by establishing a standard contract that districts and charter schools must use throughout the state.

Most school boards in Florida oppose the bill, saying it would prevent them from doing their job, overseeing the local expenditure of education dollars.

“It goes against the whole idea of having a locally elected school board to negotiate contracts on behalf of the taxpayer,” said Couch.

Florida law requires school districts to provide some oversight of charter schools, because they are public schools spending public money. But generally charter schools operate independently of public school boards and are exempt from many public school laws, because they’re supposed to be engines of educational innovation.

Many charter schools are managed by charter management companies, usually for-profit, private entities. The schools are paid per-pupil state funding, like traditional public schools, and some federal and state dollars tied to the types of students and programs they include.

Duval’s school board, Couch said, has put measures in its charter school contracts that are not likely to become part of a statewide contract template, she said, giving two examples.

In one instance, a charter school operator wanted to make all students with disabilities disclose their disabilities and their individualized educational plans before the students could participate in the charter school’s admission lottery.

Schools use lotteries when there are too many students applying for too few seats in a grade or school.

Couch said Duval’s board negotiated with charter school operators and got them to remove that requirement, to ensure that all students regardless of disability status had equal chances in the lottery.

In another case, she said, Duval’s School Board prevented a charter school from requiring parents to volunteer at least 25 hours a year or face expulsion of their student. That requirement could be used to weed out parents whose physical condition, work or finances preclude them from committing that much time to a school.

Some Duval-area charter contracts include plain language clarifying that anything bought for the school with public dollars remains a public asset even if the school closed. In the past, some critics of charter school management companies have said tax-funded purchases, such as textbooks, furniture or even school buildings, went to the charter management companies when charter schools closed.

Supporters of school choice in Florida say the House bill will attract more high-quality, national charter school operators to the state, opening up new schools and hopefully reducing waiting lists and the need for lotteries for desirable charter schools.

The bill’s language, for instance, will limit how much time school districts have to negotiate charter school contracts, so new schools can open faster. And chains would have one contract instead of many different contracts to sign for various school districts.

“We should be doing what we can to help high-performing Florida charter schools replicate and encourage proven, high-quality, out-of-state entities to come to the Sunshine State,” said Patricia Levesque, executive director of, Foundation for Florida’s Future.

Although the bill passed in the House 68-50, its fate is uncertain in the Senate, where there has been less vocal support.

Source: The Florida Times Union – by Denise Smith Amos

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This entry was posted on April 28, 2014 by in Charter Schools, Florida, States.

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