Appeals courts criticize Florida charter school statutes

Two Florida appeals courts recently decided two cases involving the same charter school operator and came to the same conclusion: There are “deficiencies” in the state’s charter school statutes.

The courts indicated that when the state Board of Education overrules school boards on charter school applications, it should be required to spell out its reasoning in greater detail. They also found other “shortcomings” in the state’s standards for high-performing charter school appeals.

The state board can hear appeals from charter schools whose applications are rejected by local school boards. It often overturns their decisions, especially in cases involving “high-performing” charters like Renaissance Charter School, Inc., which was rebuffed in two separate efforts to bring its South Florida schools to Central Florida.

State law only allows high-performing charter schools to replicate once per year. If a school board rejects a high-performing charter’s application to replicate one of its schools, the school board has to show “clear and convincing” evidence the application failed to meet certain standards spelled out in state law.

In the two recent cases, one in Seminole County and one in Polk, the state board decided the districts did not prove their case. The districts disagreed, and appealed the cases to state courts. Three-judge panels for the Fifth and Second Courts of Appeals both sided with the districts and overturned the state board’s decisions. And in both rulings, the latest of which was issued earlier this month, the courts criticized the state laws that spell out the process for charter school appeals.

The two cases, both decided 3-0, were broadly similar.

In both cases, Renaissance was looking to replicate a high-performing middle school in South Florida by opening new K-8 schools in Central Florida. The school boards rejected the applications. Seminole County argued among other things that there were “fundamental differences” between the middle and elementary grades, which meant a proposed K-8 could not “substantially replicate” Renaissance’s North Broward Academy Middle School.

The charter organization pointed out its North Broward school shared a location with an elementary school, and argued that since the schools would have the same board and the same management organization, the proposed schools would be similar to the existing ones. But when it decided the Seminole County case last year, the Fifth District judges pointed out the elementary school was, at the same time, hoping to replicate at a different location, in Lake County. The court held that upholding the state board’s decision would “essentially [double] the pace at which high-performing charter schools can be replicated within the State.”

In its more recent ruling, Second District Judge Daniel Sleet wrote, “if the legislature intended to allow Renaissance to replicate any of its high-performing charter schools more than once per year, it would not have expressly limited the number of charter school applications.”

Ed Pozzuoli, an attorney for Renaissance, said the organization disagreed with the more recent ruling and was still deciding whether to appeal.

Earlier this year, lawmakers considered a bill that, among other things, would have changed state law so the one-replication-per-year limit would “not apply to charter schools established by a high-performing charter school in the attendance zone of a school identified as in need of intervention and support … or to meet capacity needs or needs for innovative choice options identified by the district school board.” That iteration was approved by the House but went nowhere in the Senate.

Meanwhile, both courts found various “shortcomings” and “deficiencies” in the statutes governing charter appeals and high-performing charters. For example, Fifth Circuit Judge Bruce Jacobus wrote it is unclear how, exactly, school boards needed to demonstrate that high-performing charters failed to meet the standards in the law.

“The statute also raises issues of due process by its failure to expressly provide for any form of evidentiary hearing or review,” he wrote.

The courts went on to say the law’s uncertainties did not hamper their review in the Renaissance cases. Still, the issues the raised in the cases, including the ability of high-performing charters to replicate, could contain the seeds of future charter school legislation.

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