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Charter School Expansion Bill Rankles Dems And Public School Advocates

Lawmakers in the House Choice and Innovation Committee have crafted a proposal that could allow a big expansion of charter schools. Charters receive state funding but are exempt from many rules traditional schools have to follow. The proposal includes language that lets charter schools move into unused public school facilities and only pay maintenance costs.

“I’m not even sure what to say in regards to this section," said Flagler County School Board member Colleen Conklin. She says there are districts in the state with empty facilities because charter schools have opened and kids have transferred.

“We need to be responsible for reform. We need to have education settings where students don’t want to leave. But there has to be a balance along the way, because you’re setting up a situation where, if you play this out, in 15-20 years, what’s going to be happening in our public schools?”  

Critics call the proposal a land grab, and equate the policy to giving public funding to private groups. The committee also added language to the bill that makes it easier for out-of-state charter operators to start up business in Florida. Lawmakers say the language would mostly benefit Jacksonville’s KIPP charter school, but it’s opposed by the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

“There really isn’t a fair comparison to make sure they’re high performing.  They may be high-performing somewhere else, but they may not be...there’s no guarantee they’ll be high-performing and serve the needs of the kids in the districts where they’re being asked to serve," said FADSS lobbyist Joy Frank.

The committee’s proposal does mandate additional oversight for charter schools. For example, should one close, it’s not allowed to issue payouts over $10,000 -- something that happened at a failed Orlando charter where a principal was paid half-a million dollars after the school closed.  Charter schools would also have to keep a website that contains information on the school, personnel and programs.

But in a move the state’s largest teachers union calls unfair, educators in charter schools would be exempt from the state’s new evaluation system, which ties student performance to whether teachers keep their jobs or get pay raises. And Jorge Lugo, a high school government and economics teacher, says that exemption creates an unfair playing field:

“When I’m compared side-by-side as a school teacher, public school teacher to a charter school teacher, and they look at my score compared to their score, they’re not the same thing. If they’re not held to the same accountability levels as I am, line-for-line, then it’s not the same score," he said.

Charter schools and teachers are exempt from certain rules and standards that public schools must comply with. But Republican Representative George Moritis of Broward says charter school teachers were never meant to be included in the state’s new evaluation and pay system, because unlike traditional school teachers, those in charter schools never had a long-term contract system, commonly called tenure.

“It’s a different system to acknowledge that. It was meant to be an innovative system. And regardless of our opinions on teacher tenure and collective bargaining, those are things charter schools do not have.”   

Also on the list of backers is former Florida Education Commissioner, now lobbyist, Jim Horne, who represents the Florida Charter School Alliance and sponsored the state’s first charter school bill back in 1995.

“We think legislation like this helps move things along and creates greater access, is a good thing. And we’re very supportive of this legislation," Horne said.

There is no companion measure in the Senate, but backers are working hard to find a sponsor in that chamber.


*CORRECTION: We originally reported that the charter the charter school bill exempted charter school teachers from the state's new evaluation system. That is not the case.

According to the Florida Department of Education's Mike Kooi: "Charter schools are still going to have to develop a teacher evaluation system that meets the requirements of statutes, including that 50 percent be based on student performance".

What the proposal actually does is exempt charter schools from things like having to go through due-process. Since charter schools aren’t unionized, that kind of language doesn’t apply to them.