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School choice bills spark debate, controversy in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate have ambitious plans to provide Florida's 2.7 million schoolchildren with more choices in education.

Their focus: fostering the growth of charter schools and voucher programs.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican and vice chairman of the House K-12 Subcommittee, said school choice is a priority for the Republican caucus because "it provides opportunities for families to get out of generational poverty."

But critics believe something else — this year's gubernatorial election — is driving the push.

"They are afraid they aren't going to have a governor who would sign all these bills come November," said Jeff Wright, who oversees public policy advocacy for the Florida Education Association.

The teachers union — along with superintendents, school boards and parent groups — say lawmakers should focus on Florida's traditional public schools.

Expect a tense legislative battle, with more than $1 million in campaign contributions expected to slosh around in lawmakers coffers.

The most buzzed about education bill so far has been the proposed expansion of the state's tax credit scholarship program, which provides private-school scholarships to children from low-income families.

In addition to increasing the number of scholarships available and removing some of the barriers to applying, the measure (SB 1620/HB 7099) would open up a new revenue stream for the program. Under current law, the scholarships are funded by businesses, which receive a dollar-for-dollar credit on their corporate income taxes. If the proposal succeeds, businesses will also be able to claim a dollar-for-dollar credit on their sales taxes.

A separate but related bill (SB 1512/HB 5103) seeks to create so-called personalized learning accounts for children with profound disabilities.

Parents could use the accounts to pay for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials, or services such as applied behavior analysis, speech-language pathology and physical therapy.

Rep. Michael Bileca, the Miami Republican who is spearheading the effort in the House, says the plan gives the parents of special-needs children more flexibility.

"One of the things you see is how much these families struggle," Bileca said. "They know what their child needs."

But some Democrats have concerns with the concept, particularly if it applies to a broad spectrum of children with disabilities.

"The devil will be in the details in determining which students really need it," said Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando.

On the issue of charter schools, which are privately managed but receive public funding, lawmakers are considering a bill that would require charter school governing boards and school districts to use a model contract.

The proposal (SB 1528/HB 7083) would also allow the state Department of Education to perform technical reviews of charter school applications.

School districts and superintendents oppose the measure. They argue it would take away their ability to negotiate quality contracts with new applicants.

But Tim Kitts, a charter school principal in Bay County and head of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools advocacy committee, said the bill is about fairness.

"We understand their point, that they want to have the negotiating capability, rather than having a contract that's handed to them," Kitts said. "But there are some districts that have been bad actors."

The proposal includes another provision that's sure to draw school-district ire: a mandate that districts share unused school facilities with charter schools.

Similar language was so controversial last year that it was stripped from a bill at the last minute.

That isn't the only bill meant to support the charter-school movement.

Two proposals (SB 790, SB 860/HB 7015) include language encouraging military commanders to create charter schools on their bases. The provisions were added after the Hillsborough County School Board denied an application for a proposed charter school at MacDill Air Force Base.

A bill by Republican Rep. Janet Adkins (HB 1255) would allow the state education department to designate neighborhoods with low student achievement as "educational student achievement zones." The education commissioner could then request proposals from educational providers, including charter schools, to "deliver services" within the zone.

Another measure (SB 1100/HB 875) would create a pilot program allowing a small number of traditional public schools to control their budgets, and hire and fire teachers like charter schools.

The purpose: to determine whether charter schools' increased flexibility results in a higher return on investment.

Democrats, meanwhile, are pushing for more accountability for charters.

Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, and Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, are sponsoring a bill that would require charter schools to prove their governing boards are independent of their management companies. The proposal (SB 1124/HB 1043) would also prevent charter schools from withdrawing students against their will, as some Florida schools have done.

Another bill from Democratic lawmakers proposes the creation of a nonprofit that would help "mitigate the impact of failing charters" (SB 1284/1265) by helping make good on any debts and placing students in other schools.

But neither is likely to be considered in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Kathleen McGrory can be reached at kmcgrory@MiamiHerald.com.

School choice bills spark debate, controversy in Florida 03/16/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 16, 2014 8:43pm]

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