Florida lawmakers look to set new tone on charter schools

Florida’s past few legislative sessions have seen some contentious battles between school districts and charter schools over issues like applications and capital funding, especially in the House.

State Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, who chairs a key education panel, is trying to set a more collaborative tone this year.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

Rep. Manny Diaz Jr.

This week, he introduced legislation that would allow districts to seek charter-like flexibility in exchange for more regulatory freedom. On Wednesday, he brought in a group of district and charter representatives to talk charter school authorizing.

The two sides have for the past few years been trying to reach agreements on issues like promoting quality charters and screening out schools that aren’t qualified.

Lawmakers have heard or floated proposals on both fronts in the run-up to the legislative session that begins in March, but this year’s key charter school bills have yet to emerge.

Diaz said that while charter school issues have brought “fireworks” to the House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee in the past, “You see some common ground. Everyone involved in this wants the best for the kids and wants quality charter schools.”

While lawmakers want to “provide the environment for quality charter schools to exist,” he said, “there’s no one here that wants to allow fly-by-nights, or folks who are in it for the wrong reasons to be in this industry.”

Tim Kitts, the leader of a small Northwest Florida charter school network, has become a vocal advocate for stopping unqualified charters. He told the committee that around the state, he’s seen “bad actors” on both sides – charter schools that aren’t prepared to educate students, and districts that throw roadblocks in the way of charter operators with proven track records.

“The districts need the power and the authority to be able to ferret out who is a quality charter school operator and who should be putting a charter school forward,” he said. “We want that accountability. We don’t want people coming into our profession that are not high-quality.”

Kitts and others on the panel were optimistic that some of the state’s recent initiatives, like the new charter school authorizing standards released by the Department of Education, could improve the quality of authorizing around the state  and create consistency from one district to the next.

Jon Hage, the CEO of Charter schools USA, one of the state’s largest charter school management companies, said its schools sometimes clear vetting by school district staff, only to get rejected by school boards for “political” reasons, a situation he hopes the voluntary standards will help improve.

Jenna Hodgens, the Hillsborough County school district’s charter schools supervisor, said having the standards in place will help school districts look more closely at charter schools’ qualifications to teach children schools, and do it in a fair way.

“If we’re striving for these standards, I think we’re going to be a lot more uniform to the operators that come to us and want to work with us,” she said.

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