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Florida lawmakers close to lifting barriers for charter schools

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers are poised to sign off on their second major piece of education legislation this session: a broad measure lifting barriers for charter schools.

The Florida Senate agreed on Thursday to make it easier to set up and expand charter schools, eroding school districts' power over charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.

The House is scheduled to vote on the proposal today and send it to Gov. Rick Scott, who has called the reforms a priority. They are also backed by former Gov. Jeb Bush's education foundation.

Scott has already signed a sweeping bill tying teacher pay, evaluations and contracts to students' performance on tests.

That controversial law prompted significantly more debate than the charter schools measure, which drew quieter opposition. State senators approved the bill in a 31-8 vote. Two Democrats, Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando and Sen. Eleanor Sobel of Hollywood, a former Broward County School Board member, broke party lines to favor the measure.

Sen. John Thrasher, the St. Augustine Republican who sponsored SB 1546, said its intent is to give more options to thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools.

"This bill simply gives them an opportunity," Thrasher said.

Under the proposal, school districts would have to grant 15-year contracts to "high-performing" charter schools — schools that receive an "A" or "B" grade from the state for the past three years and are not in financial trouble. Companies that operate more than three charter schools with an average "A" or "B" grade over the last three years would be classified as a "high-performing charter school system."

Charter schools with the new designation would be allowed to add grade levels and increase their enrollment by up to 25 percent a year. Charter school systems would be able to establish a new school in any district in the state if the new school would "replicate" one of its existing schools.

Democrats and school district officials have been quick to say that they support charter schools. But they have questioned giving charters the ability to grow with less oversight from elected school boards.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, called Thrasher's bill aggressive.

"If this bill passes, we will have public schools, charter schools, high-performing charter schools, high-performing charter school systems, virtual school, district virtual schools, Florida virtual schools, blended virtual schools — those are coming up later — charter virtual schools and so on," Montford said. He was referring to pending measures also expected to pass that would expand online school offerings.

"The question is: How much can a school district absorb and properly manage?"

Last year, 37,000 students were turned away after entering charter school admission lotteries, according to Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future. Ninety-seven percent of those children were on a waiting list for an "A" or "B" charter school.

The House has a slightly different version of the bill than the Senate, HB 7195, which includes a provision prohibiting cities and counties from imposing zoning and building restrictions only on charter schools.

Neither version contains an earlier provision forcing districts to accept charter schools set up through universities and community colleges.

Patricia Mazzei can be reached at pmazzei@miamiherald.com.

Florida lawmakers close to lifting barriers for charter schools 04/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 28, 2011 10:01pm]

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