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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

Florida's charter school expansion bill off to uncertain start



UPDATE: It appears that discussion on this bill has been pushed off to Wednesday. We'll keep you posted.

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Gov. Rick Scott says he wants more charter schools in Florida. On Tuesday, that conversation begins in the state Legislature.

On tap before the Senate PreK-12 Education Committee is a wide-ranging bill sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, that would potentially open up new opportunities for charters sponsored by colleges, run by for-profit companies, or supported by developers.

It’s possible some of the details of Senate Bill 1546 could change, since the committee is expecting a substitute bill. But so far, the legislation would:

* authorize state universities and colleges to approve charter school applications;

* exempt charter schools from concurrency fees and ad valorem taxes, and provide credits to developers who contribute land or buildings;

* provide “high-performing” charter schools or systems with more leeway to establish schools in new districts, and allow for-profit companies to run them.

To qualify as “high performing,” such a company would need to achieve a system-wide average of “A” or “B” in the state grading system, and have no schools with an “F” grade during the two previous years. (Already failing schools converted into charters would be exempted.)

Such provisions might not offer much relief for one charter operator, Imagine Schools, which has been locked in a dispute with several districts over its claim to be operating as a true nonprofit entity, as it must under current Florida law. Its request for state guidance has sat in administrative limbo for more than a year, while its school in St. Petersburg earned its second straight “F” grade.

But it’s likely that traditional public school districts will have problems with any provisions that are seen as chipping into their legal authority to oversee public education. The last time the Legislature tried to create a new body to independently authorize charters – the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission – an appellate court struck it down as unconstitutional.

Already there are more than 400 charter schools in Florida, including 30 in Hillsborough County. But experience shows that universities aren't necessarily any better at overseeing charter schools than regular districts. The last one that tried it in Tampa Bay, the University of South Florida, gave up after seeing its charter school’s grade slip to an “F.” A year later, having been converted into a regular Hillsborough elementary school, the school earned its first  “A.”

Stay tuned.

[Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 8:41am]


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