The controversy surrounding a charter school bill began to fade on Tuesday, as a Senate panel stripped away its controversial provisions.
The original bill was intended to speed up charter schools’ contract negotiations with school districts, give them more access to district-owned buildings and lure more high-profile charter networks from outside the state.
Those provisions have won support from Republicans and charter school supporters, but drawn criticism from school districts and Democrats during hearings in the House.
The amendment approved by the Senate Education Committee leaves a five-page bill with some new provisions. Now, the measure would bar charter schools from suspending or dismissing students unless they commit specific violations spelled out in the school’s code of conduct, and require administrative law judges to resolve charter contract disputes within 30 days.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, cast the lone vote against the re-written bill. Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, supported the measure. He has pushed for a separate proposal aimed at preventing charter schools from withdrawing students against their will.
Meanwhile, the bill continued to advance in the House in its original form. Its sponsor, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said his goal is to “streamline” the opening of new charter schools, but he also hinted at plans to look for common ground with school districts and other groups that opposed the measure.
One contentious part of HB 7083 would require districts to make under-used buildings available to charter schools. House staff found that right now, there are 13 charter schools operating in school-district-owned facilities around the state, and eight of them either don’t pay rent or use them for a “nominal charge.” But they noted that in some cases, buildings have stood vacant, but have not been made available to charter schools looking for space.
Diaz told the House Education Appropriations panel that he is working on tweaks that would clarify that school boards would not have to offer up buildings they are already putting to good use, and set terms for “fair-market value payments” for charter schools that lease district facilities.
He also said he planned to re-work provisions that would allow national charter school chains to receive “high-performing” status from the state.
The charter school networks would have to meet requirements set by the state Board of Education, he said, and the goal of the new provision would be to lure them into high-need areas identified by school districts.
“What we’re going to try to do is give them an incentive to go into under-utilized areas, or areas that need support,” he said. “It’s going to be very narrow when we get done with it.”
Diaz told the committee he plans to present his proposed changes the next time the bill gets. While Democrats all voted against the House bill on Monday, several, including Rep. Dwayne Taylor, D-Daytona Beach, said they would “feel more comfortable” with it after Diaz made the changes he described.