The Florida Legislature's controversial Schools of Hope charter school program took a major step forward Tuesday, when the Board of Education approved its first two operators.
Texas-based IDEA Public Schools and Miami-based Somerset Academy, an affiliate of the state charter giant Academica, received the board's unanimous support to establish charter schools in communities where the district public schools routinely perform poorly on state tests and local improvement plans do not generate change.
"We're excited to serve these communities in Florida," said Dan Fishman, IDEA vice president for growth.
He said his group had been meeting with civic leaders in Tampa and Jacksonville, among other cities, to learn about their needs and determine where a school might be most needed.
IDEA plans to open four charter schools in Florida in August 2021, Fishman told the board. Chairwoman Marva Johnson asked why it would take so long, to which Fishman said it takes time to hire staff, find property, build schools and prepare a viable academic program.
"We're not interested in going into the suburbs," he said, noting that IDEA works primarily in poor Texas communities and is expanding into southern Louisiana. "We want to work with districts to find the neediest parts of the cities."
Doug Rodriguez, Doral College president, spoke on behalf of Somerset, which operates dozens of charter schools, primarily in south Florida. The group gained most attention when it took over Jefferson County schools as part of a state-mandated turnaround plan.
Of note, Doral College employs Rep. Manny Diaz, who helped shepherd the Schools of Hope program into law, as its chief operating officer.
Rodriguez said Somerset viewed Jefferson County as an opportunity to test out its improvement model, and now it wants to grow its efforts into other parts of the state.
State Board member Gary Chartrand had nothing but positive comments for the firms, particularly IDEA, which he said he had visited in Texas. He said he appreciated the group's efforts in bringing low-income children to college readiness, and thanked Fishman for bringing IDEA to Florida.
Its presence in Florida proves the Schools of Hope program is worthy, Chartrand said.
Skeptics had questioned whether the idea, promoted by Florida House leaders in 2017, would ever get off the ground. They noted that the number of charter school operators with records of turnaround success in low-income areas was low, and wondered if any would ever apply.
But the Legislature cleared the path in the way it established the law.
Until the State Board can adopt clear and measurable guidelines, such as having a provider's students outperform the state and district averages, it put in place less strict benchmarks. Set forth by lawmakers, those included having a current and active grant award for funding through the National Fund of the Charter School Growth Fund.
Shortly after the board approved those standards in January, the first applications came in.
Another potential roadblock remains.
Several school boards also challenged the program in court, saying the Legislature had overstepped its authority in creating an easier path for charter school approval than working directly with the local districts. If successful, the suit could stymie Schools of Hope.
Critics have also complained that the legislature diverted money from the district school system to charter schools, instead of helping the struggling schools. Lawmakers set aside about $140 million for Schools of Hope.
To win support in the more leery Senate, the program's supporters put about $50 million into grants for up to 25 struggling district schools to assist their turnaround efforts.
Senators tried to expand that model during their spring session, but gained no traction for that idea.