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House Sends Digital Ed, Charter School Overhaul And Parent Trigger To Senate

The Florida House has signed off on proposals giving kids more access to online courses and charter schools, while cracking down on charter abuses and paving the way for parents to have a greater say in the fate of failing public schools.

A proposal by Republican State Representative George Moraitis cracks down on large payouts at failing charter schools and increased their financial reporting requirements. The bill comes in the wake of a series of scandals at charter schools, which get public dollars for teachers and students, but have more flexibility in how and what they teach than traditional schools do. One of the most high-profile examples of failure, was a charter school in Orlando.

“While I was campaigning, a school in my district closed. That school was called, North Star Charter High School,” said Democratic Representative Joe Saunders, who has highlighted the case of Orlando’s North Star Charter High School many times before as an example of why such a bill is needed.

An amendment Saunders was able to get onto the bill would stop failing charter schools from issuing large payouts, like the half-million dollars North Star’s principal received after the school shut down. Meanwhile, Moraitis made good on a promise to remove language letting charter schools have access to unused public school buildings.

The Senate is working on a compromise that would give charter schools access to any unused public building, whether a school or not. Moraitis original language gave charters access to unused public schools, stoking an increasingly contentious battle between charter school supporters and school district officials, who viewed it as a land grab. Moraitis’ House bill 7009 did manage to sway some Democrats to vote for it. It cleared the chamber on an 87-29 vote. 

Also picking up a few Democratic okays isa bill to expand online learning options for public school students. The proposal lets individuals and organizations apply for state approval and receive education funding based on the number of kids who sign up, but Representative Irv Slosberg was one of many Democrats who didn’t go for the proposal.

“If this bill passes, virtual learning companies don’t need to have a single office in the state. They can be in China, they could be in India. They could even be in North Korea. Who knows? Do we really want our children to be educated by a for-profit, foreign corporation?”   

The measure doesn’t require virtual education providers or their staff to be based in Florida. But the bill’s learning shouldn’t be limited to geographic location:

“It’s about providing the children of the state of Florida with the opportunity to access the best education possible. Whether it means crossing county lines to take a virtual class in another county...or providing districts an innovation, a technology and blended learning and having that flexibility,” said Representative Manny Diaz (R-Hileah).  

Letting out-of-state online providers partner with school districts also means the state’s long-established Florida Virtual school could be getting some more competition. Diaz’ House Bill 7029 cleared on an 82-37 vote.

But that was just a warm up to the big fight: a proposal that, among other things, would give parents a greater say in the fate of failing public schools.

House Speaker Will Weatherford outlines the rules of debate for the so-called “parent trigger” bill. Also known as the “Parent Empowerment act,” the measure  requires schools to notify parents if their child is being taught by a teacher that received a poor evaluation. The “trigger” part of the bill lets a majority of parents in a failing school petition a school district to implement one of four, federally mandated “turnaround options”: such as revamping the school’s administration, conversion to a charter school or closure. Those opposed to the bill say its not a solution that address the various reasons why schools fail.

“What does signing a petition do for little Jimmy when his mother may be working two jobs, hasn’t had a raise in six years, saw her pay cut three percent while she can’t get healthcare?..To help a struggling school requires an holistic approach because there are a myriad of reasons why kids perform the way they do in school, and it’s not just academics,” said Democratic Representative Cynthia Stafford.

The proposal would only affect 25 schools in the state. Opponents fear the bill will lead private, for-profit charter school operators to try and sway parents into the conversion option. But supporters say the measure will foster greater parental involvement. The measure cleared the House chamber on a mostly partisan vote. It now goes to the Senate, where last year it died due to Republican in-fighting. A companion bill in the Senate is still moving through the committee process.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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