A bill to expand Florida's charter school system sailed past its first hurdle Wednesday, gaining unanimous approval by a Senate committee.
Under Senate Bill 1546, "high-performing" charter companies could expand into new counties without going through a lengthy approval process. And colleges or universities could approve charters, which use public money but operate independently from local school districts.
Republican sponsor John Thrasher of St. Augustine said thousands of students were turned away from Florida's more than 400 charters last year, and most of those schools earned A or B grades in the state grading system.
"I think this is a clear indication that we need to expand the charter school system, particularly for those charter schools that are doing a superb job," he said.
But school districts immediately raised flags over the bill's definition of "high performing": at least a B average, with no recent Fs or adverse audits.
That's too low a bar, said Darvin Boothe, chief lobbyist for the Seminole County school district, where only one school has a grade as low as C.
Allowing a charter company with a B average to sail through the approval process without vetting "seems to be a step down in quality," he told the Senate PreK-12 Education Committee.
Sen. Bill Montford, the ranking Democrat, said he would support efforts to improve the bill. But he voiced concern over allowing colleges and universities to authorize charters.
"It just appears as though we're forcing school districts to accept a decision made by a university unilaterally," said Montford, a former superintendent.
Supporters pointed to successful charters run by Florida State University and other colleges. But Hillsborough officials recall the charter school that the University of South Florida turned over to the district in 2008 after it earned an F grade.
There could also be potential legal problems with the bill, according to a staff analysis, since the state Constitution gives school districts sole authority to oversee education within their boundaries.
Summer Romagnoli, a spokeswoman for the Pasco County schools, said the district supports charters, but fears the bill would erode its mandated responsibility to oversee such schools and put its traditional schools at a disadvantage.
"Our district is strongly opposed to this bill," she said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.