Thursday, September 20, 2018

Proposal to allow a state charter school authorizer advances in Florida Constitution Revision Commission

The last time Florida lawmakers tried to set up an independent charter school authorizer, an appellate court struck it down as facially unconstitutional.

Now, the Florida Constitution Revision Commission wants to revise the language to allow future Legislatures to take such a step if they see fit.

At issue is a single word in Article IX — "within." Voters decided in 1968 that local school boards would operate, control and supervise all free public schools "within" their school districts.

Commission member Erika Donalds proposed changing the language so boards would have that oversight over all the schools "established by" the district. That would give the Legislature the power to set up alternative public schools outside the current model, similar to 34 other states.

Related coverage: Proposal calls for alternate charter school authorizer in Florida 

Patricia Levesque, who runs Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, encouraged her commission colleagues to consider the proposal an update of the constitution to take into account ideas that weren't envisioned 50 years ago. She listed charter schools, private school choice and dual enrollment as examples.

"We have no idea what could be done in the future," Levesque said. "Give [lawmakers] the authority to be innovative."

Others took up the cause, as well, suggesting the need to offer alternatives to establishing new schools than going through the school boards that might be hostile to the ideas.

"This isn't working well everywhere, and every child deserves to have options in their community," said Judge John Stargel, who recently joined the commission.

One of the most outspoken opponents was Florida Education Commissioner Pam Stewart. She said she strongly supports choice and charters, but contended the state already has established a strong, competitive public school system under existing rules.

She noted Florida has more charter schools than almost any other state, serving about 200,000 students. Applicants that are rejected by a school board can appeal to the state and win approval through that process, she added.

"Florida has been a leader," Stewart said.

Removing local control over the students, schools and tax dollars raised a concern for her and others, though.

"We risk giving this broad authority to the Legislature, not knowing what might happen," former state Sen.  Arthenia Joyner said. "This proposal goes too far, and risks destroying our public school system."

In the end, the commission agreed to send the item forward for revisions and final consideration. Commission member Frank Kruppenbacher, an Orlando attorney who advised Orange County schools, said he would push at that time to include wording that makes clear no set of public schools holds advantages over another because of its authorizer status.

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