Florida charter school bill gets bipartisan support

Travis Pillow

A Florida charter school bill cleared its first legislative hurdle on Tuesday, after avoiding the party-line votes and heated debates that have flared in recent years.

The legislation, aimed at improving charter school quality, passed the House Choice and Innovation panel with bipartisan support.

Rep. Irv Slosberg, a South Florida Democrat who voted for the bill, described it as a “beneficial compromise.”

It would create a charter school institute at Florida State University that would help vet charter school applications, examine teacher preparation programs, and otherwise help the state’s 67 school boards manage its roughly 650 charter schools. It would also give school boards more authority to screen charter applicants and make it easier for academically high-performing charters to expand in high-needs neighborhoods.

“Charter schools are like a fast-moving freight train,” Slosberg said. “On one hand you don’t want to get in front of the train, and other other hand you want to slow it down so it doesn’t crash.”

Longtime charter school supporters, including Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the legislation would help modernize Florida’s 19-year-old charter school laws. He said parents’ access to charter schools can vary depending on where they live.

“I think it’s unconscionable that there’s been barriers, in some places, to make them wait,” he said.

The bill was presented by Rep. Bob Cortes, a first-term Republican elected in a campaign in which school choice was a central issue. He told the panel he wanted to reach a consensus between school districts and charters.

He helped remove provisions intended to hold school districts accountable for the charters they authorize, which had previously drawn criticism from some members of the panel when they discussed draft legislation last month.

Nobody testified against the measure. Jim Horne, a lobbyist who represents charter schools and business groups, said the bill would help address concerns among charter school supporters that poorly run schools could harm their movement. The proposed institute could help make sure charters are prepared to manage a school before they apply to a school board.

“We have seen a lot of applications that probably aren’t quite fully baked and ready for prime time,” he said.

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