Florida school boards: Standard charter contracts unconstitutional

Travis Pillow

Florida school boards are questioning the constitutionality of standard charter school contracts as the state Board of Education gets set to vote on rules creating them.

Their objections appear in hundreds of pages of recent comments and letters to the state Department of Education. The Florida School Boards Association wrote in July: “We view this as an unconstitutional encroachment on the school board’s authority to operate, supervise, and control all public schools within the school district.”

The comments and letters were obtained by redefinED through a public records request. They reflect more  than a year of public pushing and behind-the-scenes wrangling over standardized charter school contracts. The rules creating them are set to come before the state board at its November meeting.

The proposed contracts were set in motion by a 2013 law. Backed by charter school advocates, the law required the Department of Education to develop a standard contract that would serve as a starting point for agreements between charter schools and every district in the state. The stated goal: To streamline the contract process, set a baseline for expectations and create an opportunity for more meaningful negotiations.

In a state with nearly 650 charter schools, and dozens more opening each year, charter advocates have also raised concerns that districts were trying to constrain charter schools with troublesome contract provisions that went beyond requirements in the law.

DOE officials started drawing up the draft contract in the summer of 2013. They started with a draft that combined provisions from existing charter contracts used by several school districts, then spent more than a year revising the proposal based on feedback from half a dozen public hearings and written suggestions from districts and charters alike.

But even as they suggested changes, school boards, superintendents and their Tallahassee associations began raising constitutional objections.

The school boards association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and some of the state’s largest school districts contend in letters to the department that creating a single model charter contract for the entire state would violate a constitutional provision giving school boards authority to regulate all public schools in the state, as well as a separate provision barring laws “impairing the obligation of contracts.”

State education officials have repeatedly emphasized that the standard contract would not take away districts’ authority to tailor charter contracts to local needs. It would only serve as a starting point. Districts would have to indicate how their proposed charter agreements are different from the standard contract.

“Please note, districts and charter schools may agree during contract negotiations to amend the standard contract in any way that meets their needs,” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart wrote in an Oct. 3 memo to districts.

Districts have opposed the concept since it was initially proposed in the Legislature. In its letter to state education officials, the school boards association said the concept of a standard contract “ignores Florida’s diversity” and “no amount of tinkering to a standard contract will render it acceptable.”

Tiffanie Pauline, the Miami-Dade school district’s assistant superintendent in charge of charter schools, wrote that officials in her district worried a standard contract could make it harder for districts to set terms for schools planning to operate in their communities.

Charter contracts are at the core of the charter school concept. Negotiated between charter schools and the districts that authorize them, the agreements set academic targets and parameters on many aspects of schools’ operations, from their curriculum to when their school years begin.

In some ways, the standard contract could help districts strengthen accountability for charter schools. Drawing on a long-standing provision in state law, the current proposal includes requirements for charters and districts to agree on annual academic goals, measure actual student performance against those goals, and inform the department if the school falls short.

In his communications with school districts, as well as a response to concerns raised by the superintendents’ association, state school choice director Adam Miller has said the state’s standard contract proposal has been crafted to instill “strong outcome-based accountability” for charter schools, while also protecting their “autonomy and flexibility.”

During the legislative session last spring, charter advocates backed a bill intended to streamline charter contract negotiations even more, by shifting some aspects of contract negotiations into the charter application process. The measure passed the House, but was held up in the Senate.

State Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, said after the session that the Senate put the brakes on that legislation in part to give the standard contract time to take effect. The proposal is likely to return in the future.

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