Florida Politics

Charter schools, open enrollment among education bills to pass Florida House

Booker T. Washington High School junior Gabriella Duroseau, 17, right, asks a procedural question on Jan. 7, 2016 during the school’s first debate club meeting of the new year.
Booker T. Washington High School junior Gabriella Duroseau, 17, right, asks a procedural question on Jan. 7, 2016 during the school’s first debate club meeting of the new year. mhalper@miamiherald.com

An assortment of education measures — several with significant effects on Florida’s public education system — easily passed the state House on Thursday, mostly along party lines.

The approved bills, deemed priorities for the Florida House, include one that would allow parents to send their children to any public school in the state that has space available, and another that imposes more financial transparency requirements on charter schools in exchange for making it easier for “high performing” and “high impact” charter schools to set up shop and expand in Florida.

Those measures, in particular, drew considerable debate this week, as Democrats renewed arguments that Republicans neglect conventional public schools in favor of charter schools, which are run by private companies that receive taxpayer funding.

“Boy, they’re getting a lot of attention,” House Democratic Leader Mark Pafford, of West Palm Beach, said of the state’s 650 charter schools that serve about 250,000 children statewide. By comparison, about 2.4 million children go to 3,600 conventional public schools.

Republican lawmakers repeatedly emphasized their goal to “empower” parents and children with “choice” and “opportunity.” Several also chastised Democrats on Thursday for being stuck in the past and for not focusing on “the kids” in their arguments, which questioned the rationale, logistics and cost of Republicans’ policies.

“We have to break the chains of the prison guards of the past, who want to preserve what was,” Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said.

Rep. Chris Sprowls’ bill (HB 669) to allow open enrollment in Florida public schools drew concerns from Democrats about how residents’ tax dollars would be affected and whether the Legislature was opening itself up to litigation because, as Pafford argued, “tax dollars are derived for a certain purpose within that certain area.”

Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, dismissed questions about financial consequences as unrelated to his bill, which he said was about “sound policy” and giving “people opportunity ... so they can take advantage of wonderful public school education.”

Sprowls said local tax dollars “shouldn’t be an issue” for lawmakers and, regardless of that, the tax dollars would still be used for educational purposes.

“We’re trying to draw a distinction based on the border of a county, and that’s a distinction without value to me when we’re talking about a child’s education,” Sprowls said.

Tampa Bay-area districts have, for years, let students transfer across district lines.

Democrats also worry that open enrollment could harm neighborhood schools and that it would benefit primarily affluent families, who are better able to afford the transportation costs involved with sending their kids to school in another district.

“We’re creating opportunity, but false opportunity,” Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville, said.

Sprowls’ bill passed 79-34. Lawmakers also debated at length a comprehensive proposal dealing with charter schools before passing it on a 79-35 vote.

Among its effects, HB 7029 — sponsored by Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs — would require the private companies and organizations that operate charter schools to better disclose their finances, a provision that drew bipartisan praise.

But House members were divided on other provisions that would let “high-performing” charter schools more easily replicate in Florida and that would offer financial incentives to charters that set up in areas with impoverished or at-risk children. Such charter schools designated as “high impact” would get automatic eligibility for state capital dollars instead of having to wait three years, among other monetary benefits.

“There’s some very disturbing trends that I find in this bill,” Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston, said. “We’re empowering charter schools very often at the expense of traditional schools.”

Democrats, led by Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, attempted several unsuccessful amendments to the bill on Wednesday. One would have required charter schools to prove they help mostly children in need and also that the school isn’t duplicating services already offered by conventional schools — which were the original purposes of charter schools when they were established in the mid-1990s.

“There is a great need for innovation and that appears to be lacking,” Dudley said. “Imitating what our existing traditional public schools do … is probably not a great idea.”

Cortes said state law already requires “the use of innovative learning methodologies.”

“Parents determine whether or not their students’ needs are being met and should have the option to enroll in a charter school, if they feel the charter school meets their students’ needs,” Cortes said.

Each of the education-related bills that passed out of the House Thursday also is getting considered in the Senate, although not necessarily in the same form. Identical bills have to pass out of the House and Senate in order for them to be sent to Gov. Rick Scott and signed into law.

The one that has, perhaps, the toughest odds in the Senate is a proposal to continue a controversial teacher bonus program aimed at rewarding Florida’s “best and brightest” who become educators.

The bonuses, initiated this school year, are given to teachers who are rated “highly effective” and who scored in the top 20th percentile on their ACT or SAT exams when they were in high school.

Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, who originated the idea, calls it a retention and recruitment tool to ensure smart teachers enter and stay in Florida’s K-12 classrooms. But Democrats in the House and members of both parties in the Senate question the logic of tying a teacher’s high school exam to their ability to be effective in the classroom.

The proposed House budget for 2016-17 includes $45 million toward continuing the program, pending lawmakers’ renewal of it this year. But senators aren’t putting any funding behind it until they can first vet the program themselves.

Fresen’s plan for the “Best & Brightest” bonuses is included in a comprehensive bill, HB 7043, that also deals with performance funding for state colleges, funding for universities’ research programs and educator liability insurance. It passed 81-31.

By a nearly unanimous vote, House members also passed HB 833, a parent-driven proposal that would require elementary schools to offer 20 minutes of recess each school day. Only Republican Reps. Richard Corcoran, of Land O’Lakes, and Michael Bileca, of Miami, opposed it.

That bill is essentially dead for this session, though, because Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee Chairman John Legg, a Trinity Republican, won’t hold a hearing on it. Passionate mothers, who affectionately call themselves “recess moms,” want him to change his mind, but Legg told the Herald/Times on Thursday he won’t. He calls it “a local issue.”

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