Sunday, June 24, 2018
Education

Senate passes bill encouraging state-level collaboration for military charter schools

TALLAHASSEE — On the heels of a tug-of-war over a proposed charter school at MacDill Air Force Base, the state Senate on Tuesday approved a bill encouraging military commanders to establish charters.

The bill allows commanders to "work with the commissioner of education to increase military family student achievement, which may include the establishment of charter schools on military installations."

Similar high-level involvement took place last summer when Gov. Rick Scott's office referred backers of the MacDill charter to a Fort Lauderdale charter school management company.

The charter proposal that resulted later met resistance from the Hillsborough County School District, prompting backers to drop their request. But they plan to refine their application and resubmit it.

The legislative proposal — which passed unanimously in the Senate, and in the House the week before — covers a wide range of military benefits.

It lets veterans pay in-state rates at Florida colleges and universities. It increases funding for continuing education and career certification programs for veterans. Senate President Don Gaetz said its passage would make Florida "the most military-friendly state in the nation."

The charter school provision was added as part of an amendment sponsored by Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples.

Democrats were immediately concerned. Some thought the language would let military base commanders work directly with the state to establish new charter schools. Under current law, local school boards must approve new charter schools.

"We all read this as a potential pre-emption of local school boards," said Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said he raised the issue with Richter.

"We've been assured by the sponsor that this bill would not change the charter school approval process," Montford said.

Still, Montford said he planned to keep tabs on how the language was applied moving forward. "The language is vague," he said.

Sen. John Legg, a Trinity Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the provision was not intended as a way to circumvent local school boards, but conceded he hadn't "looked at the nuances."

"I don't know that it is a work-around," Legg said. "I think it creates a better way for base commanders to work with boards, with the department (of education) and the commissioner serving as a conduit."

Language encouraging charter schools on military bases also was added to a different Senate bill that requires school districts to create technology plans.

By law, charters are supposed to originate from individuals or approved organizations, typically nonprofits. Districts approve the schools and provide minimal oversight. Arms-length relationships with the management firms make sure the schools serve students and not businesses.

When a district turns down a charter — as Hillsborough did at MacDill — the applicant can appeal to the state. The State Board of Education, which is appointed by the governor, has the final say.

The bill approved Tuesday does not contradict those rules. Although the state supervises the military collaboration, "the applicable school district shall operate and maintain control over any school that is established on the military installation," it says.

Richter said the bill does not affect the Hillsborough situation either.

Arguments about the MacDill plan centered largely around the relationship between the nonprofit Florida Charter Educational Foundation, which submitted the application, and Charter Schools USA, a for-profit management company almost entirely owned by Scott supporter Jonathan Hage.

During the appeal, Hillsborough argued that the application was improper because the plan originated with Scott and the for-profit company. Scott's office had referred MacDill officials to Charter Schools USA, and the foundation got involved later.

The foundation announced last week it was dropping its appeal and would reapply later.

"What we're hearing as a result of MacDill is that base commanders have unique needs for students, and this is one way to try to address it," Legg said.

The bill will now head to Scott. "I think it's a great bill, and I look forward to signing it," he said.

Times staff writers Tia Mitchell and Marlene Sokol contributed to this report.

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