Romano: Florida House's charter school bill would surrender local control

Published April 24, 2014

Try to follow the logic here:

(You'll know you're on the right track when you start feeling dizzy.)

Charter schools are growing rapidly in Florida. Enrollment has nearly tripled since 2004, suggesting that parents have embraced this concept of non-traditional school choice.

At the same time, charters are also failing rapidly. Florida had the second-most school closings in the nation last year. In Pinellas and Hillsborough counties alone, nearly 30 charters have opened and closed in recent years.

Charter growth is clearly not a problem.

Charter accountability, on the other hand, might be.

So do you:

A) Say it's time to monitor charter applications more closely?

B) Say the plan is working and continue on the same path?

C) Say "Yippee!" and make it even easier to open charters?

If you chose C, you just might be a state legislator.

Earlier this week, the state House passed a bill that would standardize charter school contracts, which means local school boards would lose control of the approval process.

I believe the technical term for that type of bill is crazycakes.

"It's pretty egregious,'' said Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia.

"I think it's a very dangerous type of slope,'' said Pinellas County school superintendent Mike Grego.

Before growing too alarmed, I should tell you the bill is still a long shot to survive. If all goes well, the Senate will kill it the same way it killed the so-called parent trigger bills that also promoted pedal-to-the-metal charter growth the past two years.

But isn't it worth asking why we always have to depend on senators to throw us a life line after the House has driven off yet another ideological cliff?

Our state representatives either have a stunning lack of common sense or shame, and I'm not sure which would be worse.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, were originally pitched as a way to fill alternative roles in education. And while most are remarkably well-run and successful, there are also far too many that are horribly mismanaged.

Gobs of taxpayer money gets flushed down the toilet with every failed charter, not to mention the lost academic years for students and the disruption to other schools in the district when they're flooded with students from a shuttered charter.

"What we need to be asking is how can we best protect the voices of our students who are directly affected by this,'' Grego said. "This is their lives, it's not an experiment.''

If charters are given standardized contracts, the particular needs and circumstances of individual districts will be lost, and accountability will be jettisoned. On the other hand, life will be much simpler for the charter companies.

Which, by the way, would include the for-profit company that employs Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, who happens to be the House sponsor of this bill.

The larger picture, of course, is that this legislation is part of the state's methodical, and not very subtle, attempt to privatize education through charters and vouchers.

"This bill undermines the relationship between school districts and charter schools,'' Elia said. "They are allowing these for-profit charter companies to grow out of control.''

This bill is reckless and irresponsible. It's shortsighted and possibly unconstitutional. Worst of all, it is motivated by financial gains and not student achievement.

In other words, it's business as usual for the House of Representatives in Florida.