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  1. Gradebook

Florida House okays universities, colleges as charter school authorizers

Most Democrats fought the proposal, saying it looked like an end-run around school districts.

While the Florida Senate advanced major legislation to expand vouchers and charter schools in the state, the lower chamber took a less publicized step of its own to ease the path for more charters to open, too.

Along mostly partisan lines, the House approved a bill (HB 1197) to allow public colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, a role left solely to district school boards currently.

Bill sponsor Rep. Jason Fischer, a Jacksonville Republican, worked to respond to many Democrat-raised concerns as the bill moved through committees to the floor. He added language, for instance, making clear that a school district’s state grade would not be affected by the performance of a university-sponsored charter.

“Every committee stop I’ve made it slightly better,” Fischer said, acknowledging the input from the minority party.

He suggested the proposal maintains the public nature of charter schools, as only public colleges and universities may participate, and contended it increases accountability for charters, because the participating institutions would go through a review process with the Department of Education before they can become authorizers.

Most Democrats, however, balked at the idea of creating an alternate way for charter approval.

“To me, this is a carve out of the school boards," said Rep. John Cortes, a Kissimmee Democrat. “To me, this is another way of taking money away from our public schools again.”

Rep. Joe Geller, an Aventura Democrat, said he thought the bill included some worthwhile ideas, such as allowing colleges and universities to establish charter schools that accompany their mission and help students move seamlessly from high school to higher education.

But overall, Geller said, “there are too many loopholes. They may really be serving as conduits here, and cutting out school boards” in their “legitimate” role overseeing K-12 education in their districts.

What’s more, the bill is unnecessary, said Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat. He noted that universities already have lab and collegiate K-12 schools on their campus, and can create those under existing law.

“There really is no need for this,” Jones said, echoing debate from previous committee stops.

Democrats have pushed back against the expansion of charter schools for years, contending they take tax dollars away from the traditional public school system that they say is enshrined in the state constitution. The state Supreme Court ruled against a state-level charter authorizer more than a decade ago.

The Constitution Revision Commission tried and failed to put the concept before voters in 2018.

The majority of Democrats in the House voted against the bill. Among those who backed the measure were Susan Valdes of Tampa, James Bush III of Miami, Kim Daniels of Jacksonville, and Patricia Williams of Lauderdale Lakes.

The bill next heads to the Senate, where a similar proposal has not been heard this session.