A weekend interview with ...
... state Rep. John Legg. The New Port Richey Republican serves on the House Schools and Learning Council, and runs a charter school in Pasco County. He spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about a growing controversy over whether the State Board of Education should grant school districts exclusive authority to issue charter school contracts. (It's item 4 on the board agenda.)
What is the issue at hand?
You've kind of got to go back a little bit on the issue. What are charter schools? Basically, charter schools are a unique way to provide education for students. But the way they are set up is through a contract. Since it's a contract, basically the school district acts as a contract manager. And I think sometimes the school districts forget that process that they are not in the job of running the school ... they are in the job of basically being the contract manager, which is definitely a new role for them.
What we've seen is, since there is some ambiguity in the state constitution - it depends on who you talk to, they'll give you a different perspective. But my perspective is that the state constitution says, one, that education is under the purview of the State Board of Education. Another provision of the state constitution says that local schools are under the purview of the local school board.
Because there are conflicting issues, we began to address that. One of the issues is this concept that charter schools in some counties could be perceived as competition to the traditional public schools, and they view that as a threat. Some of them do. Others embrace it as a way of providing unique learning experiences for students. What we've seen in certain districts, because of that potentially hostile environment, in order to make charter schools more efficient ... multiple authorizers are in order. States such as Colorado, cities such as Indianapolis, Washington D.C., have multiple authorizers. In those areas with multiple authorizers, the quality of the charter schools, according to the studies, tend to be higher quality....
And that's why you created the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission?
Right. That's one of the reasons why. ... On the flip side, we've had several school districts - well, Brevard has pulled its exclusivity - basically saying, if someone else wants to provide charter schools and regulate them and be their contract manager, we're okay with that. ... Some of them don't want to go into the contract management issue, they just want to focus on education. So what we did was provide the Schools of Excellence.
Now, I'm not in favor of exclusivity. However, it was adopted, because that's what Sen. Jim King wanted in there. ... What exclusive authority basically says is there are 51 issues the district has to address. When they come back, they are basically scored on these issues. Now, some of these issues don't seem important to most folks. Others seem very important. For example, ensuring that the money is given to the charter schools in a timely manner. That might not seem like a big issue. But if you don't get your money from the district in a timely manner, you can't make payroll and the school shuts down. So that's a huge issue that the districts have to ensure that they provide that service. ... There's other issues dealing with federal dollars, dealing with local dollars, dealing with ESE services ...
What we've seen is some districts provide excellent service, others provide mediocre service, others provide horrible, horrible service in terms of contract management for charter schools.
Why do you think districts would want exclusivity at all given the controversy over the way that they're run and some charter schools, like you said, saying 'Your district runs a horrible service'?
I don't understand that. Because my concept would be that if a district is providing excellent service or doing something great ... charter schools are going to flock to that district. They are going to say 'We want to go this route because they provide such excellent service and because they provide such excellent management and regulation that we want to be under their umbrella.' At the same time, if they don't provide service, they may want to go to the state level.
Now, the intent - and the intent is sometimes different from what actually happens in practice, and I'm fully aware of that. The intent would be that the Schools of Excellence would only authorize the highest quality level of charter schools. They would put the charter schools through the most rigorous of tests to be authorized. But once they are authorized, they would also provide the highest quality of service as well.
So they would be a charter school district?
Yes. They would be an authorizer of schools.
What about the issue between the charter schools that are denied by the school boards? Could they turn to the commission?
Theoretically they could. But I would say if they are denied by a school district, and for just cause, they in a heartbeat should be denied by the Schools of Excellence.
Now, here's the problem that I'm having with this exclusive authority issue. They are looking at exclusive authority before the Schools of Excellence is even up and running. So basically what they are saying is we want to have control of the charter schools in our district, and we don't even know what the Schools of Excellence looks like yet.
If the Schools of Excellence was up and they saw the mechanisms that were in place and they were concerned that the quality of schools being authorized by the Schools of Excellence doesn't meet the standard that they believe should be in their local districts, then I would yield that they have just concerns. But this commission has not even begun to authorize schools yet. ...
I am encouraging the commissioner of education to basically take her time, be very slow. And the Schools of Excellence. I am putting no pressure and I am not encouraging them to authorize any schools yet. They need to take their time. ...
From my understanding there is going to be a recommendation of only three districts that get exclusive authority - Orange, Polk and Sarasota. I think they have good reasons: They scored high in all the categories....
Why is this such a bugaboo issue for the state board, then? It seems like it should be pretty straightforward.
I think it's a philosophy issue. And I think the philosophy issue here is what they are saying is there are some districts out there where charter schools may be better off going through a different route. ... We try never to point out shortcomings in districts. That tends to make things go south very quickly. We do our platitudes, our compliments to the umpteenth degree where it's kind of sickening at times. But the reason you want to do that is because you want to constantly keep in good relations.
What this does, and I know it's the intent, is it puts a mirror up in front of the districts and says, 'Take a look at yourself and how you are dealing with charter schools.' This is the first time this has ever occurred. And what we're seeing is, some of them have warts. Some of them have blemishes that they're ashamed of. And the State Board of Education doesn't like putting that mirror in front of districts. At least that's my subjective opinion.