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Florida House Republicans Push Charter School Expansion

Sarah Mueller

The Florida House will vote this week to establish what members call “schools of hope.” Democratic lawmakers say Republicans want to spend more than a billion dollars over several years on charter schools while starving public schools of funding. But Republican lawmakers and charter advocates argue public schools are failing to educate students.

Rich Templin is a lobbyist for the labor union AFL-CIO in Tallahassee. But he’s also the father of children attending Hartsfield Elementary School. He’s upset about the two charter schools that have set up shop near the school. Hartfield has a D grade. But Templin said the state’s frequent testing changes have lowered the students’ performance. Then came the charters.

“And that charter came into the community and target-marketed the families that they wanted," he said. "And they said ‘Look, this school is failing, you can come to our school.’ Now here’s how they marketed it. ‘All the of things you don’t like about your school, which by the way are all things that have been mandated by the people in this building, you don’t have to deal with if you come to our charter.’”

Templin said the charter schools attracted parents away from Hartsfield and more may be leaving if the legislation sponsored by Rep. Chris Latvala becomes law. It allows charter schools to set up within five miles of persistently low performing schools. The House would establish a 200 million dollar fund to incentivize out-of-state charters to set up in the state.

Latvala said the main reason for low public school performance is students living in poverty. But he said throwing money at the schools hasn’t helped.

“If a school’s failed for 10 years, what harm is it to that school which is a failure factory to try something else," he said. "To try something that a lot of my colleagues and friends in the back rows keep talking about, well what if these schools fail. Well, heck, what if they succeed?”

Both Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum and Democratic Rep. Shevrin Jones said you can’t just throw money at schools. Students, especially those in poverty, need other help like making sure they have enough to eat. Gillum, who is campaigning for governor, blasts Republican lawmakers for considering cutting food stamps for more than 150,000 kids.

“So, the Republicans have a credibility problem here," he said. "You can’t say on one hand you are extending opportunity and access and that you are so desperate and deeply concerned about the education of our children. And then in the same action, almost during the same legislative session in fact, cut access to food programs for the families who need access to food the most, critically impacted buy that move children.”

Larry Williams lobbies for the Charter School Consortium. He said there’s high performance charter schools in other states that could move into Florida and improve education. He said high performance charter schools have to meet certain criteria and have experience improving student’s performance. He points to Jefferson County. The school district has struggled for years to rise above its consistent “F” grade. It’s what House Speaker Richard Corcoran calls “failing factories.” Facing possible closure, the school board voted to bring in a charter company.

“Programs that the State Board of Education has previously approved in Jefferson County have not succeeded in turning around the failing school system," he said. "And they have now gone to pretty much the last resort, which is bringing in a charter school with turnaround experience to come in and be the turnaround agent for the district and those failing schools there.”

Florida exempts charter schools from certain requirements that bind public schools. For example… Latvala’s measure would not require teachers meet state certification standards.

Sarah Mueller is a journalist who has worked for media outlets in several states since 2010. She earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism in 2010 and worked as a print reporter covering local government and politics.