There are two competing visions of charter schools in Florida — one rosy, and one far darker.
One bill approved in the Senate last week would clear the path for a dramatic expansion in the number of such schools. "High-performing" companies could open charters in new counties, even if districts object, on licenses that run 15 years.
Then there's SB 1596. It would ban charter companies from swapping students between schools without telling their parents, or pulling down more state and federal money than they're entitled to. And it would outlaw the practice of operating schools via out-of-town governing boards — something Tampa Bay area districts have fought to prevent.
Sen. Eleanor Sobel had a hand in both of them.
The Hollywood Democrat broke ranks with her colleagues to vote on the charter expansion bill. She also wrote SB 1596 after witnessing problems in her own back yard of Broward County. She's standing behind it, even though it stands little chance of success in the waning hours of the Republican-dominated Legislature.
"I'm a fan of charters as an alternative to the traditional public schools," Sobel said of the schools, which use public money but operate independently. "But like anything else, there are a couple of rotten apples that make the rest look bad."
She learned of problems at four Coral Springs charters — Broward Community Charter School, Broward Community Middle, Broward Community Charter West and Discovery Middle — at a School Board meeting in the fall.
All four sit at the same address. And they're run by the same principal and for-profit management company, Arizona-based Leona Group LLC, which runs about 60 charters in six states.
The trouble started when one school, Discovery Middle, earned an F grade in spring 2009. Over the summer, officials later determined, principal John Drag exchanged students with the A-rated Broward Community Middle located in the same building.
"And they were doing it without the parents' consent," said Sobel, 65. "The parents didn't even know which school the kids were in."
Company officials said they did tell parents, but failed to notify the district until after the fact. "The district would expect, and rightly so, a written notification," said Leona's general counsel, Michael R. Atkins.
He said Drag's motivation for switching the students was simply to "match staff with students" and academic needs.
But the swapping appeared to have an immediate effect on the schools' grades. Within a year, Discovery had vaulted from F to B, while Broward Community Middle slipped from A to F.
Such grades help determine which schools qualify for state recognition and capital outlay money. And under its contract with the district, Atkins said, back-to-back F grades could have led to the school's closure.
Raising startup money through the federal Charter School Program proved easy. State records show three of the Coral Springs schools enrolling 556 students together pulled in more than $1.4 million to purchase equipment and services or pay salaries. And the newest, Discovery, which enrolls 91 students, has applied for a grant of its own.
Federal guidelines for the program — which doles out the largest share of its money through state education departments — prohibit giving multiple grants to schools "if, in fact, they are operated as one charter school." Sharing administrators or facilities could disqualify a school from qualifying for a grant of its own.
Atkins said the grants were sought and spent before his company began working with the Broward charters in the summer of 2008. Florida Department of Education officials could not immediately say whether they erred in awarding federal money to the schools.
But Sobel's bill would draw a clear line, barring the state from awarding such money to charters that share facilities or administrators.
As it stands now, state governments have plenty of leeway in interpreting the requirements. And school management companies are pulling in growing proportions of the awards, which last year totaled more than $138 million.
"I think when they wrote the Public Charter School Program bill (in the 1990s), it was because these schools really needed the startup money," said Gary Miron, an education professor at Western Michigan University, where 80 percent of the state's charter schools are now run by for-profit firms.
"But many of these companies, they don't need this money up front, because they have so much capital," he said, describing the allure of charter companies for venture capital firms. "If it wasn't profitable, they wouldn't be getting all of these investors."
Sobel's bill would also require that a majority of a charter school's board members live within the district.
That would resolve some headaches in the Tampa Bay area, where districts have struggled to maintain local representation with companies based in other counties or states.
"It just makes sense for a parent who has a concern to be able to go to the school's board meeting, and that the board members are easily accessible and close by," said Dot Clark, charter schools coordinator for the Pinellas County School District.
Last year, officials there objected when Virginia-based Imagine Schools placed one of its own employees — an Imagine principal in Sarasota County — on the board of its F-rated St. Petersburg charter. And Hillsborough fought a proposal by Charter Schools USA of Fort Lauderdale for two schools to be overseen by a board that typically meets at company headquarters.
"Our concern is that parents would have more difficulty in being able to talk to their board members, to know who they even are, and to attend any board meetings that are going to take place," Clark said.
Under an earlier version of Republican Sen. John Thrasher's bill to expand charter schools, companies would have been exempted from maintaining any local presence at all.
But Sobel persuaded him, as well as the backers of a House version of the bill, to accept an amendment that allows districts to require at least two members of a charter's board to live within its borders.
"If the amendment comes out, I'm not voting for the final bill," she added.
Regardless of which bills are adopted, she plans to keep pushing officials to maintain their scrutiny over public schools, including charters.
"If the charter schools are not performing as they should be, then we should fix them," Sobel said.
Tom Marshall can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3400.