GOP charter school bill riles Dem legislators

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauApril 23, 2014 

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida House approved a bill Tuesday to limit school district control over privately managed charter schools.

House Bill 7083 would require school districts and new charter schools to use standardized contracts, effectively stripping districts of their leverage in contract negotiations.

The measure found strong support among conservative lawmakers, who said it would "create real choice within our school districts."

"What we are seeing is that school districts are playing games with some of the contract issues," said House K-12 Education Subcommittee Chairwoman Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach. "In order to have a successful, balanced system, we need to make sure we have a level playing field. That's what this bill seeks to do."

Democrats said the bill would give too much power to charter schools, including some run by for-profit management companies. They also questioned whether the move was constitutional.

It passed in a 68-50 vote.

The proposal remains a long shot in the upper chamber. The Senate version (SB 1528) was watered down in its committee stops, and now does little more than pave the way for charter schools on military bases.

"I have no desire to take up the standard contract," Senate Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Trinity, said Tuesday.

Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, but run by independent governing boards.

School systems were quick to line up against the House proposal, which also requires school districts to share unused facilities with charter schools.

Wayne Blanton, president of the Florida School Boards Association, said the measure would "put all of the power in contract negotiation in the hands of the charter schools."

"Most charter schools are doing a good job," Blanton said. "But you have some charter schools that are looking at it as a money-making venture. We should not be giving those schools the upper hand."

State Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, said different districts have different needs.

"We have elected school boards in our 67 counties," Montford said. "It is their duty to protect the children in their school districts -- not just from a safety standpoint, but in making sure they get the best possible instruction. They should have the authority to enter into contracts as they see fit."

The sponsor, state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., of Hialeah, said he worked with districts to address their concerns.

Diaz added several provisions that school systems wanted, he said, including language that would enable them to block applications from charter school operators that had struggled financially the previous year.

He said the bill was not intended to help the larger networks of charter schools.

"The truth is, charter management companies have their own resources and legal departments," he said, noting they were well equipped to deal with contract issues. "This would benefit smaller operators more than anyone else."

The bill prompted a contentious debate Tuesday.

State Rep. Karen Castor Dentel, D-Maitland, called the bill "fiscally ridiculous and educationally suspect."

State Rep. Lori Berman, D-Lantana, pointed out the Florida Constitution gives local school boards the authority to operate, control and oversee public schools -- not charter school operators.

"There are provisions in this bill that directly violate our constitution," she said.

But state Rep. Matt Hutson, R-Elkton, accused Democrats of playing politics.

"This is not about party politics," he said. "This is about individuals whose grandparents and parents have gone to a failing system and want some help for their child."

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