Could charter schools soon move into district buildings?

A Florida House subcommittee devoted to school choice has drafted a bill that, if approved, could make life a little easier for the state’s charter school operators – especially when it comes to facilities.

The bill, proposed by the the Choice & Innovation Subcommittee, would give charters free use of certain unused district facilities – and require the district to pay for upkeep.

If a district-owned facility that previously has been used for K-12 educational purposes is no longer being used, the bill says, “it shall be made available for a charter school at no cost.’’

The district may give academically successful charters priority for such facilities, and may require charters to enroll students previously assigned to the school if it was open the year before as a public school.

The district would have to maintain the charter school facility “at the same standard and level it would maintain any other district-operated school similar in age and condition.’’

That suggestion might prove popular among charter advocates, including the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, which represents more than 400 charter schools.

Access to unused district facilities is No. 2 on the consortium’s list of legislative priorities this year. No. 1 is creating a charter school facilities assistance fund to help with new construction, maintenance and furniture and equipment purchases.

“Charter schools are public schools and deserve the same level of financial support and opportunities afforded to district public schools,’’ said Robert Haag, the consortium’s president. “Charter schools should have … equal access to school buildings that are sitting empty and are not being used for their original educational purpose.’’

The bill also includes other proposals that would help charters. It would require districts to reimburse them on a monthly basis for federal programs like Title I, which targets high-poverty schools. It also calls for speeding up the time it takes for districts to negotiate and award contracts that have been approved. The goal, according to the bill: remove unreasonable rules or barriers that violate the intent of giving charter schools greater flexibility.

There’s also language that suggests lawmakers want more accountability from charter authorizers (school districts) and operators. The bill calls for student academic achievement to be the most important factor when determining whether to renew or terminate a charter. And it restricts expenses to $10,000 for charters that are not renewed or terminated – unless the expense was part of an annual budget submitted to the district.

The latter proposal seems to address the flap in Orlando, where the board of the failing NorthStar Charter School paid its principal more than $500,000 after the district shut down the school last summer.

The Choice & Innovation Subcommittee meets Wednesday, from 2 to 4 p.m.

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