Florida lawmakers still seeking new paths for charter schools to open

Alternative authorizers have been found unconstitutional in the past. But that isn’t stopping the effort.
Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican, presents a bill that would allow Florida public colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, during a January 2020 meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee.
Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican, presents a bill that would allow Florida public colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools, during a January 2020 meeting of the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee. [ The Florida Channel ]
Published Jan. 16, 2020|Updated Jan. 17, 2020

Some of Florida’s most ardent charter school supporters have attempted for years to create more avenues for charters to win approval.

They liken the current system, which requires local school district sponsorship, to allowing Burger King to pick sites for McDonalds.

So for yet another year, they’re proposing legislation to allow other entities to authorize charters and enter contracts for their operation. The latest comes in the Florida House, where state Rep. Stan McClain, an Ocala Republican, has revived a bill (HB 953) that would give state public colleges and universities the power to approve charter schools.

The House in 2019 adopted the same bill, put forth by Jacksonville Republican Rep. Jason Fischer, but it had no Senate counterpart.

This session, the concept of another authorizer might have more chance for success: The Senate has two bills (SB 536, SB 1578) considering the concept. SB 536, which would establish a state-level council to review applications for high-performing charter schools, already made it through its first committee stop.

Supporters applauded McClain’s proposal, which won some bipartisan support in the House PreK-12 Innovation subcommittee on Wednesday. Democrat Rep. Susan Valdes favored the bill, saying that, if done properly, the idea would help more children advance academically.

“Why do we need this legislation? There needs to be other methods to get a charter authorized,” said Ralph Arza, a former lawmaker who now lobbies for charter schools. “Some districts we work well with. We have some school districts that become obstructionists in offering a charter.”

He mentioned Palm Beach County by name.

Adrienne Campbell, founder of the Tallahassee Classical charter school, said she struggled to win approval for her proposal from the Leon County school district, but it will open. She urged lawmakers to consider allowing existing charters to switch their sponsorships to colleges and universities, too.

In debate, some of the bill’s drivers including McClain, who also is vice chairman of PreK-12 Appropriations, suggested the measure would do something other than allow public colleges and universities to serve as charter authorizers if they wish.

They spoke about the need to improve career training, and the importance of having colleges and universities create and operate charter schools that fit with their missions. The bill speaks more broadly, though, about allowing colleges and universities to sponsor charter schools operated by others to pursue workforce needs.

At the bottom, though, the supporters focused on one key point: Making it easier to open charters, in order to give families more choices. They said public universities, already entrusted with billions in state funds, seemed a logical choice to expand charter authorization.

“To me the question here isn’t about public vs. private. This is all public education,” Fischer said. “We’re talking about trusting public universities. ... It comes down to trust.”

Some Democrats on the committee saw it otherwise. Already leery of charters, they suggested the issue centered on keeping K-12 education within the realm of elected school boards.

“The school board is elected individuals responsible for expenditures of public funds,” said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Windermere. “What is proposed is authorization of charter schools by people who are not elected and not accountable to the people.”

In the past, efforts to create a separate charter school authorizer have fallen flat.

The state-level Schools of Excellence Commission was found facially unconstitutional in 2008. That’s because the constitution says school boards “operate, control, and supervise all free public schools within the school district,” and lawmakers have made abundantly clear that charters are free public schools.

An attempt to add the idea to the 2018 ballot as a constitutional amendment failed to meet the state Supreme Court’s muster.

The Legislature has two months to try again.