Proposed charter school expansion in poor neighborhoods is latest rift in Florida education debate

A bill that passed its first committee in the Florida House would expand a charter school program originally championed by Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran.
The Midtown Academy charter school in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
The Midtown Academy charter school in St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published March 20, 2019|Updated March 20, 2019

Another facet of the debate over devoting state funds to private education companies emerged Tuesday as the Florida Legislature considered a massive expansion of charter schools in low-income neighborhoods.

Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are run by private operators.

A bill, which is a priority for the House’s Republican leaders, would expand Florida’s existing program, deemed “Schools of Hope," that allows charter schools to open near consistently low-performing public schools. The new measure proposes to also allow charter school operators to open schools in so-called “opportunity zones,” a term from President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax bill designed to boost investment in economically poor areas.

Backers of the program say the new school gives kids a way out of a damaging environment.

“All I care about is that every child in this state have the same opportunities that my three little girls have," said Rep. Vance Aloupis, R-Miami, who presented the bill to the House K-12 Innovation committee on Tuesday.

The bill would also would broaden the definition of persistently low-performing schools to include district schools that have receive D or F grades in three of the past five years. Currently, a school must receive three consecutive Ds or Fs before a charter school can open nearby. “Schools of Hope” money could be used to pay the regional and executive directors for the opening stages of the charter school, as well as the cost of leasing a building.

The “Schools of Hope” program was a major priority for Richard Corcoran, the former Florida House speaker who is now serving as DeSantis’ commissioner of education. The bill presented Tuesday heavily mirrored language put forward by DeSantis as part of a package of proposals to the Legislature.

Gwen Graham, a Democratic candidate for governor and a vocal critic of Corcoran’s school choice policies, tweeted Monday that this bill was part of an overall “plan" by Corcoran and former Gov. Jeb Bush.

READ MORE: Ron DeSantis and GOP poised to redefine Florida public education

A Tampa teacher, Grieta Patenaude, who teaches English as a second language to students in Robinson High School, argued against the bill during the committee.

“We provide counselors, social workers, psychologists ... sports, theater, music, career counseling and trade certification. And we can do that because we pool our resources into a public school," she said, before saying she fears increased school choice will lead to more school segregation. “Who are you leaving behind when you cherry-pick your students?"

Under the current law, only 20 counties have areas with persistently low-performing schools that would be eligible for a “Hope” school. But with the new, economic conditions in this bill, charter school operators could theoretically open a school in any of Florida’s 67 counties.

Aloupis cautioned that there’s highly unlikely to be an explosion of charters as part of this program because only four companies are authorized to open “Hope” schools. He pointed to the fact that despite the fact that the law creating this program was passed in 2017, no “Hope” school has opened its doors yet, as they are still in the planning stages in places like Miami-Dade and Hillsborough counties.

“These are the best programs in the country as it relates to serving children in at-risk communities," Aloupis said. “The fact there is still not an established school of hope is illustrative of the thoughtfulness and the deliberative nature of these institutions."

The bill passed the House K-12 Innovation committee, its first stop, on Tuesday, with only two Democrats voting against it.

It passed without an amendment proposed by Rep. Javier Fernandez, D-South Miami, which would have moved four additional school districts, including Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, into the category of “high-performing” districts, by changing the definition of that designation.

That categorization allows school districts increased flexibility often associated with the way charter schools get to operate — allowing district schools to more fairly compete for students, Fernandez said. Districts in this category get more options with how they can spend their state money and how they can pay for new building construction, for example.

The flexibility that “is given to charter schools on Day 1 ... this would simply provide companion flexibility after traditional public schools have demonstrated an ability to perform at what I would say is a very high level,” Fernandez said. “We’ve all seen the benefits of innovation in the charter context.”

Lastly, the bill also creates a new community schools grant for schools with needy students to provide more free meals, mental health services and other extra services.

That idea was first introduced by the Senate, which does not have a companion bill for the House’s piece on charter school expansion. However, Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said he’s open to this idea.

“It gives it a broader reach mostly in inner-city areas,” Diaz said. “Going back to the idea where we started of trying to attract the highest-performing charter schools into the area ... we have to provide them access to the neediest kids.”

In the Senate, a bill to create a new private school voucher, called the Family Empowerment Scholarship, passed its second committee along party lines on Tuesday. That voucher would be funded out of the per-student funding that’s historically been set aside for public schools only.