Not surprisingly, leaders from some of Florida’s largest school districts lined up last week against a proposed state House bill that would make it easier for charter schools to open. What was unexpected, though, was one superintendent breaking from the herd.
Broward County’s Robert Runcie not only supported the measure, he made a plea for everyone to work together.
“We need to move to an era where there is true collaboration going on between school districts and charter schools,’’ Runcie told the Florida House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee. “It’s the only way that we’re ever really going to fulfill the promise of providing every student and providing every school with the type of quality education that they need.’’
Runcie’s comments are noteworthy for all kinds of reasons. The 260,000-student Broward County school district is the second biggest in Florida and the sixth biggest in the nation. Florida, a leading charter state, is experiencing great tension – even animosity – between school districts and charters. And this particular legislative meeting was yet another example, with one lawmaker, Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami, describing the charter school bill as the “wrecking ball of traditional public education.’’
For Runcie, the comments are also part of an emerging pattern.
Last summer, the Harvard graduate and former Chicago Public Schools administrator helped lead a statewide task force of district and charter school administrators. Their objective: to help the Florida Department of Education develop language that both sides can agree upon for the state’s new standard charter school contracts.
While that’s still a work in progress, Runcie most recently stepped up to show equal support for charter school teachers in Broward by agreeing not to withhold an administrative fee from their pay raises.
The money is part of a statewide $480 million allotment for teacher pay hailed by Gov. Rick Scott and approved last session. By law, districts can charge charter schools a 5 percent fee for processing funds that come from the Florida Education Finance Program. In Broward, that fee on the dollars earmarked for charter school teacher raises added up to about $11,000, said Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, which made the request.
Runcie not only complied, Haag said, but approved back pay for charter school teachers from July 1, when the raises went into effect.
“That was incredible,’’ Haag told redefinED, adding that he believes Runcie’s gesture will serve as a catalyst for other district leaders. “Listen, we don’t care if they keep 5 percent from our schools. But withholding 5 percent from our teachers? We can’t do that!’’
Runcie may have a harder time influencing other district leaders about the new charter bill, which passed its first legislative hurdle along party lines.
The measure calls for streamlining charter school applications; adding to the process negotiations that now take place during contract talk; and requiring applications to go to the state Board of Education for review before they’re submitted to districts. It also requires the board to adopt a standard contract that lawmakers directed the Department of Education to create last session.
District representatives from Orange, Palm Beach, Miami-Dade and Lee counties, as well as Joy Frank of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, told legislators the changes would diminish the supervisory role of school boards, which in Florida authorize charter schools. They also voiced concerns about bill measures that would require districts to make unused district buildings available to charters, and make it easier for reputable out-of-state charter outfits to open in Florida.
Runcie listed concerns, too, especially with ensuring charter schools are of high quality. But he pushed for both sides to come together to find solutions rather than drawing a line in the sand.
“He understands,’’ said Rep. Manny Diaz, the Hialeah Republican who introduced the bill. “We all need to have a seat at the table in order to be fair.”