Florida lawmakers eye charter schools

Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie The Miami Herald

Testing isn’t the only closely watched education issue state lawmakers will tackle during the 60-day legislative session.

The Florida House is moving swiftly on a proposal to create a statewide institute to assist with the opening of new charter schools.

The proposal (HB 7037) also would require the immediate termination of any charter school that receives back-to-back F grades from the state. And it would require charter schools to submit monthly financial statements to their school-district sponsors.

Former Republican Sen. Jim Horne, who lobbies for the school-management firm Charter Schools USA, called the bill “long overdue.”

“The money saved will far exceed the amount of money you invest in this,” he told lawmakers, noting that the institute would help new charter school operators more fully think through their proposals before opening.

The Senate version of the proposal (SB 1448) goes a step further, allowing students to attend any traditional or charter school that has not reached capacity.

Students would not be limited to schools in their home counties, said Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, the bill’s sponsor.

Legg, who operates a Pasco County Charter School, said he included the provision because families should have the ability to transfer to specialized programs without jumping through bureaucratic hoops.

Privately managed charter schools are more popular than ever in Florida. The state is now home to more than 600 such schools, which collectively enroll about 250,000 students.

At the same time, some charter schools in Florida have come under scrutiny for questionable business practices. Others have made headlines for closing in the middle of the school year.

Superintendents aired some of those concerns and asked for stronger controls at a hearing Thursday before the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“At the start of this school year, we had a charter school that didn't have a location,” Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “They had parents dropping their children off at a local museum. They continued to run around the museum for a few weeks until we shut them down.”

The school operators and advocates in attendance said they, too, want to eliminate “bad actors.”

But they said the scarcity of available maintenance and construction funds make it difficult for high-performing charter school operators to set up shop in Florida.

Some asked the panel for a stable revenue stream to help fund facilities.

“If you can raise the bar on the quality of the applications — and when [charter schools] meet the higher bar, fund them equitably — you will begin to see a higher quality of charter schools,” said Jon Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said he is interested in further exploring the issue. But he declined to commit funding in light of a potential $1.3 billion budget hole in the state healthcare budget.

“It would be irresponsible for us to allocate hundreds and hundreds of millions [of dollars] to other priorities in state government” until the healthcare budget is resolved, he said.

Still, former state Rep. Ralph Arza, who represents the Florida Charter School Alliance, said that he was hopeful lawmakers would find a solution.

“The Legislature has to find a way to fund the parents’ desire to see more charter schools in this state,” he said.

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