TAMPA — With his signature barely dry on landmark legislation overhauling Florida teachers' pay and performance, Gov. Rick Scott moved Thursday to the next item on his to-do list: charter schools.
"We have to legislate to expand school choice and expand charter schools," he said, urging state lawmakers to act quickly. "Because parents know where their child should go to school."
Scott didn't go into specifics during a visit to the Pepin Academies, a Tampa charter for special-needs students.
But Republican lawmakers are currently refining a bill that would make it easier for universities, community colleges and even for-profit companies to create new charter schools, which use public money but operate independently.
Senate Bill 1546, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, would require school districts to enter into a contract with charters approved by community colleges or universities.
It would also give them little recourse if "high-performing" charter operators — for-profit or nonprofit groups whose schools earn at least a "B" average and have no recent "F" grades or adverse financial audits — seek to open schools in their county.
That approach could run into legal trouble, according to a staff analysis of the bill, since the state Constitution gives authority to school districts to oversee public education within their boundaries.
The bill is still awaiting its first hearing and could be revised.
Any move to dramatically expand charters beyond the more than 400 already in Florida would likely draw resistance from supporters of traditional public schools, which have often jousted with them over issues ranging from finances to academic performance.
Protesters outside Pepin Academies said they weren't happy with Scott's focus on charters.
"I don't think steering money away from the public schools is the way to go," said Susan Smith, 61, a former teacher from Odessa. "They don't even have the money to pay for this testing they're talking about."
Thomas Pepin, who co-founded the charter with his father in 1999, said his schools give around 480 mostly disabled students specialized support, and higher percentages of them graduate with a regular diploma than in the district.
But he acknowledged that some schools don't serve their students nearly as well.
"There needs to be oversight," Pepin said. "Because some of those have tainted the name of charter schools."
Scott said free-market principles like choice and competition would help raise student achievement in Florida.
"Because we know every child is unique," he added. "We just need to make sure we give them as many different environments as possible so they have as much choice as possible."
He described charter schools' potential growth as vast, and didn't rule out the possibility that a charter company might one day run schools for an entire district.
"We need to grow in a logical manner," Scott said. "(But) we need to give charter schools as much opportunity as possible."
Times staff writer Marlene Sokol contributed to this report. Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.