TALLAHASSEE — A proposed amendment to the Florida Constitution that would give a state board the power to authorize and control charter schools statewide gained its first approval in a House committee Wednesday.
The proposal from state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, is one of several bills moving in the Legislature this session that could shift oversight of charter schools from school districts to the state — in part, as a reaction to a few local school boards that have tried to stop the proliferation of charter schools.
Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. There are more than 650 operating in Florida.
Diaz's proposal (HJR 759) would direct the State Board of Education to set up a "statewide charter school authorizer to authorize, operate, control and supervise charter schools." There's no criteria listed for how members would be chosen to serve on the proposed authorizing board.
Diaz argued that school districts would still have the ability to authorize charter schools themselves, and this simply provides an alternative.
"We're not removing local control," said Diaz, who has ties to the charter school industry.
He acknowledged that charter school operators would be able to choose whether to send their application to the state or to the local school district for approval — which Democrats said would let operators pick the more favorable venue.
"It's really kind of forum shopping. You get to pick who it is that's your judge," said Rep. Joseph Geller, D-Aventura. "I don't think that's appropriate."
Florida's school boards told the Times/Herald that they also are opposed because, if the constitutional amendment were enacted, the school boards would operate and oversee all public schools except charter schools — creating a two-tier system.
"What so often happens in the zeal to promote one program is you sacrifice another… This, I think, is a misguided effort to do that," said Ruth Melton, government relations director for the Florida School Boards Association.
"Florida school boards recognize the law allowing choice, and they respect it, and many of them embrace it," FSBA executive director Andrea Messina agreed. "They are looking to retain their authority within their school district."
The Legislature 10 years ago tried to create a state-authorizing body for charter schools, but it was struck down in the courts. This is the first time lawmakers have sought a constitutional amendment on the issue.
Diaz said the plan is intended to eventually streamline approval of charter schools so they're held to consistent standards statewide — but those standards would have to be taken up by the Legislature later and aren't included in the constitutional amendment he has proposed.
By giving the state more power, "it would create a stable, streamlined, consistent benchmark for what an approved charter should be," Diaz said. "What you would see in the long run is raising the bar of what these schools are … and a much better product across the board."
The proposed constitutional amendment cleared the House K-12 Subcommittee by a 9-3 vote along party lines, with Democrats opposed.
Diaz's proposal still needs to be vetted by two more committees in the House. Its Senate companion — SJR 976, from Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland — has yet to be heard, but also has three committees to clear.
Constitutional amendments must be approved by three-fifths of both the House and Senate: 72 members in the House and 24 in the Senate. Then, if the Supreme Court approves the ballot language, the proposal must get 60 percent approval from voters in order to change the Constitution.
Republicans on the House K-12 panel praised Diaz's idea as supportive of school choice for parents.
"It's interesting to me on the issue of choice, unfortunately, we're the ones pushing for more opportunity, more choice," said Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, referring to Republicans. "We have to get away from this notion that government knows best, that schools know best… We, parents, know what's best for our children."
But Democrats questioned why the state can't ensure higher standards for charter schools without a state authorizing board and without taking away local power from schools.
"I think this is a heavy-handed approach. I think you're forcing something on the Legislature, the voters," said Rep. Bruce Antone, D-Orlando.
Geller agreed: "I don't think we should be taking authority from local school boards and giving it to an unelected statewide body." School boards are elected by local voters within each of the state's 67 countywide districts.
Diaz said his proposal is recommended by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. It also has strong support from the charter school industry, which gave lawmakers' political committees at least $182,500 ahead of the 2016 session to advance its interests, based on a Times/Herald analysis.
Diaz and former Miami Republican Rep. Ralph Arza — now a lobbyist for the Florida Charter School Alliance — both said state authority over charter school approvals is necessary to remedy rebellious school boards that are either delaying or rejecting charter school applications that should otherwise be approved.
Arza pointed to Palm Beach County as an example, while citing Miami-Dade, Broward and Hillsborough counties as examples of counties that "work in a spirit of collaboration" with charter schools.
"We need this because there has to be some other way to give parents more choice," Arza said.
"The school board, in statute, does not have the power to decide that they just don't want more charter schools in their district," Diaz said. "Their role is simply to say this application meets the standard or it does not."
He continued: "The problem is we've had one school district after another in this state take it upon themselves to interpret statute and whether they want more choice — not based on the application, but based on politics and personal feelings of what's happening in that district at the time."
But school board representatives say the conflict in Palm Beach County is an "anecdotal, singular" example that's not representative across Florida.
"There's a lawsuit involved there, and the Legislature tends to be more aggressive on issues in which litigation is involved," Melton said. "You gotta really wonder where this is coming from and what is the problem they're trying to address."
Contact Kristen M. Clark at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @ByKristenMClark.