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Florida House Republicans want $200 million to bring charter schools to students in 'failure factories'

Melrose Elementary school principal Nanette Grasso addresses student in the cafeteria at the beginning of the school year during an assembly to talk about behavior expectations at Melrose Elementary, 1752 13th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (August 21, 2014)
Melrose Elementary school principal Nanette Grasso addresses student in the cafeteria at the beginning of the school year during an assembly to talk about behavior expectations at Melrose Elementary, 1752 13th Ave. S, St. Petersburg. (August 21, 2014)
Published Apr. 1, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — Fed up with traditional K-12 public schools that perpetually fail, often in Florida's poorest communities, Republican lawmakers in the state House have proposed a bold — and costly — idea to help those students.

They want to spend $200 million in 2017-18 to entice "the best of the best charter schools in the entire country" to set up shop near Florida's failing traditional schools and establish "schools of hope" that would offer a better education to students in struggling neighborhood schools.

Republican House leaders say traditional public schools and county school districts have had ample opportunity, flexibility and resources to turn around perpetually failing schools, but the results haven't yielded enough success.

"There are kids within an hour's drive of where we're sitting that are in an environment that gives them no hope," said Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, during a House Education Committee meeting in Tallahassee this week. "It's already been proven that giving them more money in that classroom doesn't fix the problem. We have to completely change the way we do things and have a new approach."

But some Democrats, school board members, public school teachers and parents caution that the solution isn't as simple as bringing in out-of-state operators to run brand-new schools that could essentially replace languishing neighborhood schools.

The problems are far more complex than who the teacher in a classroom is or which principal leads a school, they say; it's generational and systemic poverty that plagues these students, who are most often black or Hispanic and who also face racial and geographic disparities in their educational opportunities.

"We're bringing in external forces in these school districts and asking them to turn it around," said Port St. Lucie Democratic Rep. Larry Lee, who said he grew up in such a community. "Sometimes I, as a black man, go back into the area where I grew up and, at times, even I am not accepted because they say, 'You don't live here anymore.' You need people in those communities to buy in."

The "schools of hope" legislation (HB 5105) aims to help the 77,000 students who are in 115 schools across Florida that have been graded "D" or "F" schools for three years or more. That's about 3 percent of all public schools statewide.

Of the 115 schools statewide that meet this criteria, about 21 percent are in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. That includes four of the five St. Petersburg elementary schools identified by the Tampa Bay Times as "Failure Factories" in 2015: Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood and Melrose.

"Having walked around and read and examined all of these 'failure factories' — we're talking about the richest country in the world; that's unacceptable," said House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.

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The Foundation for Florida's Future, founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush, supports HB 5105.

The bill expedites existing turnaround strategies for struggling traditional schools, so that students don't languish for years without true school improvement. It also provides a pathway for a nonprofit charter school operator "with a record of serving students from low-income families" to set up and run a "school of hope" for a minimum of five years in a community where there is a perpetually failing traditional school that's eligible to receive Title I federal funds.

Each "school of hope" would have to be able to accommodate the entire student population of the struggling public school — potentially allowing the new school to muscle out the traditional neighborhood school.

Critics of the plan question why the Legislature doesn't simply direct the $200 million, instead, to better support those failing schools and afford them more flexibility to try the innovations that the charter schools would offer.

"What you will do when you invite charter schools to compete with the traditional schools is . . . you will encourage a parallel school system," said Catherine Boehme, a lobbyist for the Florida Education Association.

Republicans argue that district administrators and teachers unions are too concerned with protecting the traditional system of public education.

"It's not about protecting kingdoms; it's about providing an opportunity for these kids to reach the stratosphere," said Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Naples.

Several House Republicans involved in the legislation — including Corcoran — have connections to the charter school industry.

HB 5105 was unveiled just this week and passed its first committee on a largely party-line vote Thursday. The bill faces only one other committee before it could reach the floor. Because it's tied to the proposed budget with its $200 million price tag, the bill will become a major factor in negotiations with the Senate.

Senators are willing to consider the House's legislation because they, too, want to help "children who are at risk and who have great, great challenges," said Senate Pre-K-12 education budget chairman David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at Follow @ByKristenMClark


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