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Education in the Legislature: Charter Schools Are Next

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 28, 2011 --

With teacher merit pay reforms out of the way, the Florida Legislature has turned toward charter school expansion, considering two bills this week that would make it easier for highly-rated charter schools to expand enrollment, add grade levels and grant preferential admittance.

And just like the swiftly-approved teacher merit pay reforms, the push to expand charter schools has the strong backing of Gov. Rick Scott.

“The next thing we’ve got to do (is get) our charter schools expanded,” Scott said Friday at a ceremonial signing of the teacher merit pay bill. “It gives our public schools the opportunity to be run by third parties and be way more innovative.”

The push for charter school expansion is part of a decades-long broader effort by Florida Republicans to offer more school choices beyond traditional public schools. Charter schools are public schools, but they can be run by a third-party, such as a university or non-profit, and are exempt from regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

Charter schools operate with approval and general oversight from the county school districts and are funded through taxpayer dollars.

They are different from private schools, which are totally autonomous and supported primarily by tuition.

“Charter schools give parents a choice,” said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, who is a supporter of a House bill to expand charter schools. “When you have options, that brings everybody to a higher level.”

The bills in committee next week offer two different takes on charter school expansion.

One bill (SB 1546) sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, emphasizes the ability of universities and community colleges to add new grades or open new charter schools.

It also removes a requirement that charter schools provide transportation.

This is a big change from current law, which limits the number of charter schools eligible for state funding to one per university, with a few exceptions. It also allows community colleges to go from just being allowed to develop secondary charter schools that serve middle and high school students to all grades, K-12.

Thrasher’s bill shares with a House proposed committee bill (KINS 11-03) an effort to label charter schools that have received two “A” grades in three years as “high-performing.” That would open the door to benefits such as the ability to more easily tack on new grades, or increase enrollment by 25 percent. High-performing schools are also assured 15-year contracts. Both bills also strengthen a charter school’s ability to appeal a district’s decision to revoke a charter.

Both measures expand the ability of certain charter schools to grant preferential admittance based on where the parent is employed or where the student lives.

Rather than just granting the preferential status to children of charter school employees, for instance, the bill now allows the children of the charter school’s business partners admittance over others. The House bill also would allow preferential admission based on whether the child attends a pre-kindergarten program at that school.

Charter schools are growing in popularity in Florida. There are currently 458 charter schools in the state serving 154,758 students. That’s up from 411 that were in operation the year before.

Thrasher hinted on Thursday that changes to his bill are likely.

He said he would support an effort to “narrow” his wide-ranging bill. “I’m of the opinion it was too broad,” Thrasher said. “We will try to move forward and see what our friends in the House do, too.”

Stargel said she wasn’t a big supporter of the concept in Thrasher’s bill of letting universities and community colleges open more charter schools.

“They should stick to their mission of higher education,” Stargel said.

The push to expand charter schools is on the legislative agenda of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, which also was a big supporter of teacher merit pay reforms.

Executive Director Patricia Levesque was on hand when the teacher merit pay bill was signed. The Foundation for Florida’s Future has seen much success this session, with another bill the organization supports that expands public school vouchers moving through committees in both chambers at a fast clip.


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