Florida Politics

$200 million incentive for charter schools is not the answer, Democrats say

Florida Democrats aren’t easing up on their criticism of House Republicans’ “schools of hope” plan to spend $200 million on attracting new charter schools to Florida that would serve students who currently attend perpetually failing traditional schools.

Democrats say the Republican proposal short-changes struggling neighborhood schools, which have tried to improve but are hamstrung by limitations — imposed by the Legislature — that charter schools don’t face.

“We’re creating a segregated system that will not fix the issue but will create deeper issues — pitting charter schools against our traditional public school system,” said Broward County Rep. Shevrin Jones, the top Democrat on the House Education Committee.

MORE: “Are ‘schools of hope’ the solution to perpetually failing public schools?”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed public schools.

A few hours before the “schools of hope” legislation would be taken up on the House floor later Wednesday, Jones — joined by Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum — convened a press conference to reiterate Democrats’ concerns with HB 5105.

“We understand there’s a dire need for fixing these issues, but I tell you: Taking $200 million to fund a charter school system is not the answer,” Jones, of West Park, said. “Taking $200 million to give to a separate entity to say they can do it better than our public school teachers — who are working tirelessly everyday in the classroom — is not a step in the right direction.”

The “schools of hope” bill, first unveiled in late March, was fast-tracked through two House committees above almost unanimous Democratic opposition.

The measure is a top priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, and has been a session work product for the education policy committees, led by Miami Republican Michael Bileca, chairman of the full Education Committee. It’s not yet clear, though, whether the Senate is on board with either the policy or the funding.

The proposal expedites existing turnaround strategies for struggling traditional schools, so students don’t languish in a failing school for years. It also sets up a program to entice high-performing, nonprofit charter school operators to set up shop in Florida in communities with perpetually failing schools, so that the students could be served by the new “school of hope” instead.

House Republican Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, has defended the caucus’ plan as their “best effort to give hope to kids who have no hope.”

He and other Republicans have argued that school districts have had more than enough time and resources from the state to turn around perpetually failing schools but haven’t succeeded.

Democrats said those traditional schools’ statuses might be a lot different if they’d have had access to the $200 million in extra funding and if lawmakers gave them the freedom to innovate as charter schools have had.

“Had the state given these turnaround schools $200 million from the beginning, they would be on the right track and not be on this cycle of failure,” Jones said. “There’s no reason we can’t create a system that has higher standards, better resources and better access than what currently exists in the public school system to obtain the same results as we would with a charter school.”

MORE: Miami lawmaker: ‘Schools of hope’ would create ‘separate but unequal’ schools

There are 115 schools in 27 counties across Florida — almost half of which are in South Florida and Tampa Bay alone — that have been graded “D” or “F” for three years or more, considered perpetually failing. The 77,000 students in those schools are the ones House Republicans aim to help by bringing in these proposed “schools of hope.”

HB 5105 will be considered on the House floor Wednesday and Thursday as lawmakers discuss their budget plans for 2017-18. A floor vote is expected Thursday.

Jones said House Republicans called him over the weekend and said they wanted to amend the proposal to ease some of the Democrats’ concerns, but Jones is skeptical.

He said the Republicans want to make those changes in budget conference — negotiations with the Senate that happen in secret, behind closed doors — as opposed to putting those amendments forward this week — in public — when the “schools of hope” legislation is on the floor.

“If it’s that important, and we know that you have spoken with the school districts and you have spoken with the communities, let’s put the amendments on the floor,” Jones said. “They said they’re going to go into negotiations; until I see it, I don’t believe it. Right now, I’m going off what the original intent is.”

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