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Private, charter schools should follow same rules as district schools, Florida lawmaker says

‘There’s got to be some things in here that we can all agree on,’ Sen. Linda Stewart suggests.

State Sen. Linda Stewart says she’s sick of the inequities within Florida’s school choice system.

District schools too often are held to requirements that don’t apply to charter and private schools, the Orlando Democrat contends. The disparities include teacher credentials, student testing and building codes.

And it needs to stop, Stewart argues. So she’s filed legislation (SB 632) aimed at bringing all three models under a single set of rules in several key areas, including academic standards and accountability.

“There should be parity no matter what type of school you choose,” Stewart said.

Her recently filed bill, which has no House companion, would require all teachers to have a minimum of a bachelor’s degree, unless they meet specific exemptions based on work experience.

It would mandate charter and private schools to meet the stricter construction guidelines that district schools must follow. It would also have private schools follow state academic expectations for students, administer state exams and receive state grades.

Stewart would not seek to control curriculum, noting that many families choose private schools for religious instruction. She said she does not wish to interfere with that desire.

“I don’t care where they want to send them,” she said. “But at least have the same requirements. ... It makes for a better education system.”

The bill might seem like a non-starter in the Republican-dominated Legislature, which has over 20 years created a test-based education system that pointedly has made distinctions among public and private schools — even while expanding the amount of state money going into the private system.

Indeed, one of the more outspoken advocates for choice options suggested that the idea of creating more restrictions runs counter to the principles that the “reform” supporters have implemented.

“I just find it interesting that traditional public school advocates complain about the mandates from the state being stifling to their programs, yet they want the same regulations for the other programs rather than free their programs from the burdensome regulations,” said charter school operator Erika Donalds, whose husband is a Republican lawmaker.

She noted that Stewart’s bill doesn’t seek to close down district schools that earn two consecutive F state grades, or face major financial problems, as charter schools currently face.

Donalds argued that the choice schools should have the room for more freedom and innovation, stating that parents can walk away from those schools as the ultimate form of accountability. For parents in communities without such options, she said, the state imposes tougher rules to ensure the students are getting the quality education they deserve.

But the concept behind Stewart’s legislation might be able to gain some traction, said Sen. David Simmons, a Seminole County Republican and the Senate’s president pro tempore.

Simmons observed that a growing number of voucher and tax-credit scholarship opponents have been accepting of the model for students with special needs. Those children receive state vouchers for forms of education the district schools have not provided well, he said.

At the same time, he added, the majority of children receiving tax credit scholarships and the state’s new Empowerment voucher are poor, often minority and frequently at risk of failure in their neighborhood schools.

“They are the ones who we need to assure even moreso are going to schools that have qualified teachers and meet our concerns about safety and integrity of the process,” Simmons said.

The children, their parents and taxpayers deserve no less, he said. “I believe there is some common ground that can be reached, some compromise to help assure that if you’re going to take public funds you’re going to provide assurances that the money is well spent.”

Simmons stressed that he viewed most private schools as well qualified and providing an excellent education. But protections must exist for students who end up at schools on the “fringes,” he said.

Stewart raised concerns that, even if her bill moved in the Senate, the more reserved House might not give it the light of day.

House Education vice chairman Rep. Chris Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican who also chairs PreK-12 Appropriations, said he did not want to speculate much on a bill that has yet to come to his chamber. He remained cautious in his few comments, stating that even good ideas can be stopped in their tracks if there’s not enough money for them, adding that state education funds this year are likely to be focused on increasing teacher pay.

Still, Latvala didn’t totally rule out any idea.

“If somebody wants to file that, and it gets to my committee, I certainly will take a strong look at it,” he said. “I would give it the same weight as any other bill that comes to my committee.”

Stewart said that although she filed a bill with several components, she’s open to picking out pieces that can work.

“Something is better than nothing,” she said. “There’s got to be things in here that we can all agree on.”

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