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School Choice expansion a top legislative priority

By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-964196.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – The Florida Legislature wants to give students and parents more options when it comes to choosing schools. Lawmakers have a series of bills that could vastly expand the state's current offerings. Lynn Hatter reports the menu includes an expansion of charter schools, online learning and the "V" word: Vouchers.

Charter schools could see a boost to their numbers under bills in the House and Senate. Charters identified as "high performing" by the state could automatically increase enrollment and offer more grade levels. The Senate's bill would also allow colleges and universities to create their own charters. Patricia Levesque heads the Foundation for Florida's Future, an education advocacy group.

"The school for Arts and Sciences here in Tallahassee. It's been an A or a B school for six or seven years. What the bill would do is allow them to grow enrollment up to 25-percent a year. They could add a grade level, I think they're only authorized as a K-8, so if they wanted to add ninth grade, they could add ninth grade."

The bills allow certain charters to expand without the approval of their districts, which are accountable for their success and failures. They could also grow under a separate bill dealing with digital and online learning. That proposal is sponsored by Miami Republican Senator Anitere Flores.

"Some of the things specifically that Senate bill 1620 does are things that quite frankly, we probably should have done a long time ago. One of those is to require every student before they graduate from a Florida High school is take an online course. That's something that will prepare them for the future. We know that not only are colleges and universities moving toward online learning, but our workplaces are becoming more online and digital as well."

The bill would expand the Florida Virtual School to offer programs to elementary grades. It also allows charter virtual schools and removes a requirement that only in-state providers can offer classes. Meanwhile, parents may soon have more access to the McKay Scholarship program for students with developmental disabilities. A bill in the House would increase eligibility to a wider range of conditions. Representative Kelli Stargel of Lakeland supports the bill because she says the state's current way of identifying program eligibility isn't always fair.

"You can have two identical children, two identical situations, two identical disabilities, and one can get an IEP and another can get a 504, just because of the discretion of someone looking at those files, correct?"

Then there's the ultimate in school choice expansion. A bill by Senator Joe Negron of Palm City, would allow parents to take the money the state spends for their children to attend public school, and put it to private education. If they were home schooled, the money would go to a college savings account.

All of this talk of expanding school choice options has worried traditional public school supporters. They say the bills are too much, too soon. Seminole County School Board representative Darvin Booth is worried about the charter school expansion bill. He says the bar for what makes up a "high performing" charter school is lower than the standards in place now for traditional schools.To be a high performing school district, a school district must earn an A-average over two consecutive years, and have no district operated school earning an "F".

"And all of their classes that are under class size, must meet the full requirement of class-by-class. We would ask that you would at least consider the requirement that high-performing charter groups meet the standards of high performing school districts."

The head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents says that's also a potential flaw with the plan to expand digital learning- especially when it comes to the state's curriculum. Democratic Senator Bill Montford heads the Association and worries about the quality of some of the groups who may be allowed to open up for business in Florida.

"You would expect that they would have high standards and high accountability, but someone has to sit down and make sure it's in line with Florida standards. Because students from Florida are going to be held to Florida standards, and you have to make sure that charter schools, especially from outside the state meet the same standards."

With the McKay Scholarship program, the concerns are mostly legal. The program's focus only on students with disabilities saved it at a time when former Governor Jeb Bush's school voucher program was declared unconstitutional by the state supreme court. Attorney Ron Meyer with the Florida Education Association, a teachers union, says his group doesn't oppose the scholarships, but they worry the expansion bill would put the program in jeopardy.

"That's the concern I bring to you today, is taking another 50-thousand kids who have not been screened and identified for special needs treatment is going to endanger the program. And whether its my clients or others who have a problem with wholesale expansion of vouchers, by doing this you are not helping, you are not improving the program, you are threatening it's very existence."

Not all of these bills will make it through the legislature before session ends. Supporters of universal vouchers say they know this isn't the year for it. The digital education bill is stalled in the Senate but at its last stop in the house. The Charter school bills are awaiting votes in their committee stops in both chambers. But the McKay scholarship expansion is already up for a full floor vote in the House, and is in its last stop in the Senate.