House Plan For Standardizing Charter School Contracts Runs Into District Opposition

Mar 25, 2014

The relationship between traditional public schools and their charter counterparts has long been fraught with tension, and that relationship may get even worse, despite claims by Florida lawmakers.

Charter schools get state money but are largely free of many of the rules and regulations governing traditional public schools. There are nearly 600 public charter schools in Florida and they exist in a majority of Florida’s school districts. It’s up to locally-elected school officials to approve or deny agreements creating charters, but that control could soon go away.

‘The districts, school boards [and] superintendents I represent, and parents and teachers as well, have asked me to oppose this bill," said Representative  Karen Castor Dentel (D-Maitland)  a public school teacher who sits on the House Education Appropriations Committee. She’s not a fan of standardizing charter school contracts. “It goes around the local school district and ties the hand of the school board, and those are the duly elected school board members who are supposed to represent the citizens in that area.” 

Districts want to be able to lay out certain terms and conditions for the independently-run charter schools—which they say they should be allowed to do, since a charter school’s performance factors into a district’s overall state grade. But attorney and charter school advocate Steven Bracey argued Monday before the House Education Appropriations Committee that districts have gone too far when it comes to adding additional rules into contracts:

“Specifically, there are some that limit the ability of board members to serve on multiple boards--something no mentioned in statute— and we think that making sure the contracts are consistent with what appears in statute makes the process much simpler," he said.

Other charter administrators say they feel torn between obligations to their school districts and their boards.

“I feel like a wife, caught in between my husband and my mother-in-law," said Adrian Peters, a former Leon County school teacher who’s now principal at Tallahassee’s Governors Academy Charter School.

Governors is run by the for-profit Charter Schools USA. Prior to opening its doors, Governors was sued by the Leon County School District for failing to report how many students had enrolled. The district won. Florida School Board Association President Wayne Blanton says districts aren’t against charter schools, but they need certain guarantees in place before schools open for business:

“Those are the kind of things we’re working on in this bill that the charter schools have to give us ahead of time," he said. "It impacts the number of teachers we’re going to hire, our zoning: we need to know where those students are coming from and how many they’re going to have when they’re open. That’s a good example.”

Blanton says his organization prefers the Senate version of the bill. It says charter school agreements may be approved only after operators prove they have the necessary infrastructure in place.

Opposition from school districts has frustrated House bill sponsor and Hialeah Republican Representative Manny Diaz:

“No one in this process, on either side of this issue, is interested in having bad actors. It’s disappointing districts continue to oppose the bill when we continue to work on it. That’s disappoint because I’m spending so much time on it, trying to get their input, and if they’re going to continue to oppose it, then what are we doing?”

Diaz says he’s addressing concerns about the bill and that it’ll be changed at its next committee stop. Those guarantees weren’t enough to win over Democrats. The bill cleared the Education Appropriations committee on a party-line vote.