Charter school fight intiensifies at Capitol

By Brandon Larrabee

The News Service of Florida

The legislative battle over charter schools kicked into high gear Wednesday, as measures dealing with educational choice advanced in the House and the League of Women Voters hammered a constitutional amendment that could increase the number of charters in Florida.

Of several education bills that landed on the House floor Wednesday, some of the sharpest debate centered on legislation (HB 7029) that would tighten accountability for charter schools in exchange for relaxing some limits on how often high-performing charter providers can open new facilities.

The chamber also began work on a proposal (HB 699) that would allow students to go to any school in the state that has open seats.

Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the session that this week was designated as the one in which the House would deal with education bills.

“We’re strong advocates of choice, and a lot of those kind of circle around that,” Crisafulli said.

Democrats zeroed in on the focus on charter schools. In addition to the bill debated on the floor Wednesday, the House Education Committee advanced legislation (HB 873) including several controversial changes to school construction, such as requiring school districts to make up gaps in construction funding for charters.

Meanwhile, a constitutional amendment (HJR 759) that would establish a statewide entity with the power to approve charter schools anywhere in Florida — bypassing local school districts — could come to the floor soon.

“Boy, they’re getting a lot of attention,” said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, after noting that about 250,000 of Florida’s roughly 2.7 million public school students go to charter schools.

“I don’t see any other description of what’s going on, other than these folks are corporate-related people — these corporations, a lot of them that come in as charter schools — and they make campaign contributions,” he continued.

House members spent part of the debate Wednesday knocking down Democratic amendments to the bill dealing with charter school accountability. Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, offered a proposal that would require proposed charter schools to show that they would be innovative or serve high-need areas.

Florida needs “not more imitation — we demand innovation,” Dudley said.

“The whole idea here is that the laudable goal and the idea of having innovation and serving populations that really need the help are not being met with the existing law nor the proposed law,” he said.

But Republicans said the requirement was unnecessary.

“Current law already requires charter schools to encourage the use of innovative learning methodologies,” said Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs. “Parents determine whether or not their students’ needs are being met and should have the option to enroll them in a charter school if they feel that the school meets their students’ needs.”

During the meeting of the House Education Committee earlier Wednesday, Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joined Republicans in an otherwise party-line, 13-4 vote to send the construction bill to the floor.

While school districts have focused on a part of the bill cracking down on construction costs for new schools, Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said an otherwise good bill was “weighted down” with a couple of objectionable elements. One of those would require local school districts to use property taxes to make up the difference if the state doesn’t adequately fund construction for charter schools.

But one of the bill’s co-sponsors said that was only fair, given that charter schools are also public schools and the parents of charter students are also taxpayers.

“So to somehow assume that…it’s a bastardization of their property taxes…to allow some of those dollars to go back to the school that their children attend is a disconnect to me in logic, as far as what the purpose of raising a local tax dollar is for — the education in a public setting for their kids,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Outside the historic Capitol, the League of Women Voters of Florida joined other groups opposed to the constitutional amendment setting up the statewide entity to authorize charter schools.

“It is frankly a blatant power grab by politicians who want charter school corporations put in charge of our local public schools and accountable only to them,” said Lynda Russell, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association.

Pamela Goodman, the league’s president, said lawmakers were trying to set up a parallel school system and should instead focus on helping traditional public schools.

“Why don’t we fix the problem that is at hand in Florida before we start solving a problem that really isn’t there?” Goodman said.