Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Large counties push back on House's proposed $200M charter school incentive

TALLAHASSEE — Administrators at some of Florida's largest school districts are speaking out in opposition to House Republicans' $200 million "schools of hope" plan that would pit new, specialized charter schools against the districts' perpetually failing traditional public schools.

Miami-Dade County Public Schools is "actively lobbying against" HB 5105, a spokeswoman said, and Duval County schools Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sent a lengthy letter to the Florida Senate on Monday morning urging lawmakers to "please use logic and reject" the House's bill.

The Senate has yet to formally discuss the "schools of hope" legislation that the Republican-led House passed last week along party-lines. The legislation seeks to attract specialized, out-of-state charter schools to come to Florida and compete with struggling traditional schools so that students currently attending such schools have another option.

Because both chambers agreed to send the House-approved bill to upcoming budget conference negotiations, it all-but ensures some form of the policy will become law in 2017-18. (The bill is a top priority of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.)

However, school district administrators — echoing some of the opposition expressed by House Democrats — say they have concerns about the proposal.

In his five-page letter, Vitti said the bill "seemingly attempts to address the authentic need" of improving schools that serve students who largely face the challenge of generational poverty "but does so without a research-based, data-driven, realistic or sustainable solution."

In defending their plan, House Republicans have repeatedly dismissed any criticism and cast opponents as supportive of the current system, which they argue lets struggling schools fail for years on end without significant improvement despite existing turnaround strategies that are available.

To preempt that argument, Vitti implored lawmakers to take his words to heart.

"This is not a letter written by a supporter of the status quo or a protectionist for lower standards, expectations or failing schools," Vitti wrote. "This is not a political critique. Please do not deflect the arguments below with rhetoric or accusations."

Vitti then detailed a myriad of criticisms he has with the "schools of hope" plan, including that: "Students are not stuck in lower performing schools as is popularly stated by supporters of HB 5105. The state of Florida has one of the most robust choice systems in the country."

Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho isn't planning a formal letter like what Vitti sent, but Associate Superintendent Iraida Mendez-Cartaya emailed Miami-Dade House members last week urging them to vote against the bill.

"The district has serious concerns with the bill in its current state. The language currently bypasses school boards and in essence creates state schools," Mendez-Cartaya wrote.

District spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego added Monday in a text message: "We agree with Vitti in that in the state of Florida, there is scant evidence of high-performing charter entities with a track record of turning around traditional schools."

Broward County schools Superintendent Robert Runcie is addressing the district's concerns directly with lawmakers, a district spokeswoman said.

Pasco County schools Superintendent Kurt Browning also didn't send a formal letter; "however, we believe Dr. Vitti made salient points," said Spencer Pylant, a spokesman and lobbyist for Pasco schools.

He said Pasco schools "have been working with the Senate on their response."

"It is our hope that districts can provide their own school of hope upon receiving their first grade of 'D' or 'F'," Pylant said in an email. "We would like to access the funding, provide behavioral supports, reduce regulations, and arrange community wrap-around services."

Vitti concluded his letter by bluntly calling the "schools of hope" proposal "ideological and myopic."

"This is a multi-million-dollar strategy of marketed hope," Vitti wrote. "When did 'hope' become a strategy? This is not even about hope, though. We have no research or data to be hopeful that this strategy will work — it will not. The research and data already tell us this."

It was not immediately clear Monday whether other large school districts — such as Hillsborough or Pinellas counties — had sent position letters to the Legislature, or whether they plan to declare their support or raise similar concerns. (Almost half of the 115 struggling schools that House Republicans want to target with charter-run "schools of hope" are in South Florida and Tampa Bay.)

Meanwhile, Democratic lawmakers are doubling down on their concerns about the transparency of Republican leaders' decision to include "schools of hope" and other substantive education policy in budget negotiations.

"We were promised unprecedented transparency and instead what we've gotten are bills drafted in secret by committee staff with absolutely no input from Democrats or stakeholders in public education," House Democratic Leader Janet Cruz, of Tampa, said in a statement. "Now, the final outcomes of these bills will be decided behind closed doors among Republican leadership and sent back to us with no chance to even offer an amendment.

"The process and the policy is an insult to Floridians who want real solutions to the issue of improving our public education system so that our children can break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and achieve economic security as adults." Cruz said.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark

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