Florida Politics

Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?

Fed up with traditional K-12 public schools that perpetually fail, often in Florida’s poorest communities, Republican lawmakers in the state House have proposed a bold — and costly — idea to help those students.

They want to spend $200 million in 2017-18 to entice “the best of the best charter schools in the entire country” to set up shop near Florida’s failing traditional schools and establish “schools of hope” that would offer a better education — and better chance to succeed — to those students currently in struggling neighborhood schools.

Republican House leaders say traditional public schools and county school districts have had ample opportunity, flexibility and resources to turn around perpetually failing schools, but the results haven’t yielded enough success.

“There are kids within an hour’s drive of where we’re sitting that are in an environment that gives them no hope,” Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala said during a House Education Committee meeting in Tallahassee this week. “It’s already been proven that giving them more money in that classroom doesn’t fix the problem. We have to completely change the way we do things and have a new approach.”

But some Democrats, school board members, public school teachers and parents caution that the solution isn’t as simple as bringing in out-of-state operators to run brand-new schools that could essentially replace languishing neighborhood schools.

The problems are far more complex than who the teacher in a classroom is or which principal leads a school, they say; it’s generational and systemic poverty that plagues these students — who are most often black or Hispanic and who also face racial and geographic disparities in their educational opportunities.

“When you look at these communities where these schools are, there are some common threads to all of them: Poverty, you have kids having kids, and a lot of times these kids don’t know how to be parents,” said Port St. Lucie Democratic Rep. Larry Lee, who said he grew up in such a community.

“We’re bringing in external forces in these school districts and asking them to turn it around,” he said. “Sometimes I, as a black man, go back into the area where I grew up and, at times, even I am not accepted because they say, ‘You don’t live here anymore.’ You need people in those communities to buy in.”

West Park Rep. Shevrin Jones, the House Education Committee’s top Democrat, described to the committee how he taught in a struggling Broward County school where he had students “whose parents were not home in the evening, students came to the classroom high, students came to the classroom [and] had not eaten breakfast.”

“This is the reality that we’re speaking of,” Jones said. “You can bring in whoever you want, whatever charter school you want into a district, and say, ‘I want you to teach these children’ — it does not matter. ... If you have never been in the classroom with the door shut, with 30 students, and if you think you, yourself, can change a child just based on because you said another entity can come in and do it, you are sadly mistaken.”

The “schools of hope” legislation (HB 5105) aims to help the 77,000 students who are in 115 schools across Florida that have been graded “D” or “F” schools for three years or more. That’s about 3 percent of all public schools statewide.

Almost half of them — 52 — are in South Florida or the Tampa Bay area. That includes four of the five elementary schools in St. Petersburg that were profiled by the Tampa Bay Times in its Pulitzer-winning “Failure Factories” series, which are still in failing status.

“Having walked around and read and examined all of these ‘failure factories’ — we’re talking about the richest country in the world; that’s unacceptable,” House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, said.

He added: “We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars — more than ever before — to say that it is reprehensible that you would take a child and make them stay in a ‘failure factory,’ not for one year, not for two years, not for three years, not for four years, but five years. That whole system has to end, so we’re going to fund it.”

HB 5105 has been weeks in the making — a top priority for Corcoran and the primary work product of the 2017 session for House Education Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, and his subcommittees. It’s supported by the influential Foundation for Florida’s Future, which was founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The bill expedites existing turnaround strategies for struggling traditional schools, so that students don’t languish for years without true improvement in their school. It also provides a pathway for a nonprofit charter school operator “with a record of serving students from low-income families” to set up and run a “school of hope” for a minimum of five years in a community where there is a perpetually failing traditional school that’s eligible to receive Title I federal funds.

The bill offers some guidance on what criteria would be required for a “hope” operator, but which operators ultimately get that status would be up to the State Board of Education. Operators with that designation would then have access to grants, loans and other state funding from the $200 million pot to build their “school of hope,” train teachers, recruit students, promote community engagement and implement their innovative strategies.

Each “school of hope” would have to be able to accommodate the entire student population of the struggling public school — potentially allowing the new “school of hope” to muscle out the traditional neighborhood school.

“Since every aspect of the turnaround process has been tried there, this is intensive care,” said Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House Pre-K-12 education budget chairman. “We see this as an emergency. We need to address these students now.”

But critics of the plan question why the Legislature doesn’t simply direct the $200 million, instead, to better support those failing schools and afford them more flexibility to try the innovations that the charter schools would offer.

“It’s a great start but you’re not putting it in the right place,” said Catherine Boehme, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association, which is the state’s largest teachers’ union. “I don’t see how it serves our students in schools that you want to call ‘emergencies’ when you don’t also provide support for them to implement the same good strategies that you’re going to suggest that the charter schools implement.”

She added: “What you will do when you invite charter schools to compete with the traditional schools is ... you will encourage a parallel school system.”

Republicans argue that district administrators and teachers’ unions are too rigid and too concerned with protecting the traditional system of public education, rather than embracing school-choice opportunities that might better help students.

“It’s not about protecting kingdoms; it’s about providing an opportunity for these kids to reach the stratosphere,” Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples, said.

Diaz added: “We are sitting here and possibly saying ‘no.’ We have tried everything else. It is our moral responsibility to make this move and provide this option for our kids.”

Several House Republicans involved in the legislation — such as Corcoran, Bileca and Diaz — have connections to the charter-school industry.

HB 5105 was unveiled just this week and voted out of its first committee on Thursday. The House Education Committee advanced it along a party-line vote, with Lauderdale Lakes Democrat Barry Russell joining Republicans in support.

The bill faces only one other committee — the full House budget committee — before it could reach the floor. Because it’s tied to the proposed budget with its $200 million price-tag, the bill will become a major factor in upcoming negotiations with the Senate.

There is no direct companion to the bill in that chamber, but senators are willing to consider the House’s legislation because they, too, want to help “children who are at risk and who have great, great challenges,” said Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

“We look forward to receiving that proposal,” Simmons said.

Kristen M. Clark: 850-222-3095, kclark@miamiherald.com, @ByKristenMClark

FLORIDA’S PERPETUALLY FAILING SCHOOLS

Florida House members say 115 schools statewide have been in “D” or “F” status for three years or longer. Of those, 28 — about 24 percent — are in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. (Monroe and Palm Beach counties did not have any.)

MIAMI-DADE

▪ Brownsville Middle School, Miami

▪ Carol City Middle School, Miami Gardens

▪ Dr. Robert B. Ingram/Opa-locka Elementary School, Opa-locka

▪ Earlington Heights Elementary School, Miami

▪ Golden Glades Elementary School, Opa-locka

▪ Jose De Diego Middle School, Miami

▪ Liberty City Elementary School, Miami

▪ Madison Middle School, Miami

▪ Mandarin Lakes K-8 Academy, Homestead

▪ Poinciana Park Elementary School, Miami

BROWARD

▪ Broward Estates Elementary School, Lauderhill

▪ Colbert Elementary School, Hollywood

▪ Dr. Martin Luther King Montessori Academy, Lauderhill

▪ Lake Forest Elementary School, Pembroke Park

▪ Lauderdale Lakes Middle School, Lauderdale Lakes

▪ Lauderhill 6-12, Lauderhill

▪ Oriole Elementary School, Lauderdale Lakes

▪ Park Ridge Elementary School, Pompano Beach

▪ Pinewood Elementary School, North Lauderdale

▪ Pompano Beach Elementary School, Pompano Beach

▪ Robert C. Markham Elementary, Pompano Beach

▪ Rock Island Elementary School, Fort Lauderdale

▪ Royal Palm Elementary School, Lauderhill

▪ Tedder Elementary School, Pompano Beach

▪ Thurgood Marshall Elementary School, Fort Lauderdale

▪ Walker Elementary School (Magnet), Fort Lauderdale

▪ Watkins Elementary School, Pembroke Park

▪ Westwood Heights Elementary School, Fort Lauderdale

Source: Florida House of Representatives.

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