Will Florida school districts open ‘innovation schools?’

Starting this month, Florida school districts will be able to start their own version of charter schools, which would be bound by performance contracts and freed from a range of state regulations.

The question now is, will they?

Charter school legislation passed last year included provisions allowing districts to create Innovation Schools of Technology. Last month, the state Board of Education approved a process that allowing districts to apply to create the schools. But restrictions on the program could bar most Florida school districts from participating, at least for now.

The original proposal was advanced by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee. A former superintendent, he was an early supporter of the charter school movement in Leon County. Now head of the state school superintendents association, he said during last year’s legislative session that the proposal would allow school districts “to be able to benefit from the flexibility that the charter schools have used to be innovative and creative in the other public schools.”

Though they would still be run by school districts and subject to their collective bargaining agreements, the innovation schools would, in other ways, function a lot like charter schools.  They would be exempt from most of the state laws that make up the state’s education code. and have the same flexibility charter schools enjoy under the state’s class size limits. In exchange for the greater freedom, they would have to enter performance contracts with the state Board of Education.

The legislation ultimately approved by Gov. Rick Scott was also designed to help districts experiment with blended learning. Each innovation school will have to use a system such as the “flex model” or the “flipped classroom,” in which students receive a portion of their instruction through a virtual education system, and a portion in-person from their teacher.

To participate in the new option, a district must have been rated A or B in each of the past three school years. Last year’s tumbling school grades shrank the potential pool, leaving 21 districts that meet that requirement.

Nearly half of those districts may not be eligible for other reasons. Districts looking to start innovation schools must have either 5 percent of their students enrolled in charter schools, or a fifth of their students enrolled in schools of choice.

An analysis of enrollment surveys and district grades showed 10 school districts would have qualified based on data from the 2012-13 school year. Two of those – Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – have started other experiments with blended learning in collaboration with Florida Virtual School.

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