Florida Politics

Florida charter school reforms back under consideration

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, presents legislation related to charter schools during a hearing Wednesday before the Florida House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee.
Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, presents legislation related to charter schools during a hearing Wednesday before the Florida House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee. The Florida Channel

An effort by Florida lawmakers to make charter schools more accountable for their operations — while also removing barriers for new schools to open — is getting traction once again in the state House.

Led by Republicans who support “school choice” alternatives, the committee bill advancing for the 2016 session is generally the same as one that cleared the Florida House last spring but died in the Senate.

With lengthy debate from lawmakers on both sides, the new proposal passed the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee on Wednesday by a 10-3 vote. Democrat Irv Slosberg, of Boca Raton, joined the panel’s Republicans in support.

“Do I like everything in this bill? No way,” Slosberg said. “What we have is a fast-moving freight train with charter schools... [This committee bill] is attempting to slow down this fast-moving train by strengthening charter-school accountability.”

Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. The proposal again aims to weed out “bad actors” by requiring charter schools to disclose their finances on a monthly basis and to provide quality learning for their students. Any charter school that receives two consecutive “F” grades would be “automatically terminated.”

The measure also would create the Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation to help charter school operators submit good applications to school districts and to better navigate the approval process.

New this go-around: The proposal would establish a “High Impact Charter Network” to encourage charter schools to set up in “critical needs areas,” or those where traditional public schools have received school grades of “D” or “F” in four of the past five years. The bill includes a financial incentive to do so by automatically waiving a 5 percent administrative fee — roughly $87,000 for 250 students — that charter schools typically pay school districts.

Another new provision would allow “high-performing” charter schools an easier way to replicate their model anywhere else in Florida. Instead of submitting their applications to local school districts, school operators could get them vetted by the new state-level institute instead.

“It would create opportunities to allow high-performing charter schools in other parts of the state. We want to make sure we encourage that as much as we can,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who is again heading up the proposal for the 2016 session.

Charter contracts would still have to be negotiated by local school boards, but Democrats worry diverting applications to the institute might take away districts’ local control.

Republicans countered that approving a charter school application isn’t a subjective decision — either the applicant’s proposal complies with state standards, or it doesn’t — and they want to start penalizing school districts that reject new charter schools for “arbitrary” reasons, such as simply not wanting more in their districts.

“You can’t just willy-nilly this approval because you think you don’t need anymore schools,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, the committee chairman.

Under the committee bill, the administrative fee owed to school districts would be waived for any operator whose charter school application is denied by the district but approved on appeal.

“The bill is troubling to me,” Rep. Cynthia Stafford, D-Miami, said. “I believe it takes money away from traditional public schools. ... We’re trying to solve a cash-flow problem for charter schools while ignoring traditional schools.”

Last session’s bill got mired in controversy after Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, successfully amended it to require school districts to share construction funds with rival charter schools. That measure is not included in the 2016 bill and Cortes said he doesn’t expect it to be added.