State lawmaker seeks changes to charter school law

Days after an Orange County charter school threatened to dismiss students for failing the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, a state lawmaker has filed a legislative proposal that would ban the practice.

The school, Cornerstone Academy Charter School in Belle Isle, withdrew the threat after parents complained and reporters contacted the principal.

But state Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, says state law should have prevented it from happening in the first place.

“Charter schools should not be allowed to kick out students for failing the FCAT or whatever test they are being evaluated on,” Jones said. “Traditional public schools can’t do that. There is supposed to be an even playing field.”

Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars, but have private governing boards. Like traditional public schools, they use the FCATs to measure student performance and receive school grades from the state Department of Education.

If Jones’s proposal becomes law, a charter school that involuntarily transfers or dismisses a student would have to submit a report to the district school board.

The school would also be required to transfer a pro-rata share of the student’s state funding to his or her new school.

Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools spokeswoman Lynn Norman-Teck said she was unaware of any charter schools that withdraw students for poor academic performance on state assessments.

In some Florida counties, school board rules prohibit charter schools from involuntarily withdrawing students. Many charter schools agree to those terms in the contracts they sign with the local school board.

But state law isn’t explicit.

Melissa Gross-Arnold, a Jacksonville attorney who represents charter schools across the state, said there is disagreement among lawyers on the topic.

Her take on the practice: “I think it’s allowable under the law. Of course, [charter schools] are public schools, so anything they do would have to be done with notice. That’s where a parent contract comes into play.”

Some charter schools say students will lose “automatic reenrollment” if they post low scores and fail to get tutoring.

In the case of Cornerstone, Principal Renee Pancoast sent a warning letter to parents on Oct. 28.

“If your child does not attend [after-school test prep] and does not receive a passing score on the FCAT exam, their continued enrollment for the 2014-2015 school year may be in jeopardy,” Pancoast wrote.

The principal later apologized, saying she had meant “to inform parents that failure to achieve state-mandated scores in specified grade levels could affect a student’s matriculation to the next grade level.”

It wasn’t the first time a charter school faced blowback for its dismissal policies.

In 2010, the McKeel Academy Superintendent Harold Maready acknowledged that the Lakeland-based charter school system had dismissed students for failing the state exams.

Maready said the practice was allowed under the school’s contract with the district, and that parents had signed individual contracts recognizing the policy.

It is too soon to tell whether Jones’s bill will gain any traction. On Tuesday, House Education Committee Chairwoman Marlene O’Toole, R-Lady Lake, said she hadn’t read the proposal, so she couldn’t comment.Norman-Teck, of the charter school consortium, said the proposal had potential to be good policy, but only if it applied to traditional public schools, too.

Broward School Board member Robin Bartleman said she hopes the bill gets a hearing.

“You always hear stories of charter schools cherry picking their kids and asking students to leave,” Bartleman said. “The bottom line is, they are taking tax dollars and they are public schools. They need to provide the best education for all students.”

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at