Case dismissed, but charter school facilities fight not over

A legal battle over new state rules for facilities funding is now over.

But a push by a group of mom-and-pop charter schools to change regulations that determine who qualifies for funding likely isn’t.

An administrative law judge on Wednesday dismissed the case in which the Florida Association of Independent Public Schools fought new restrictions that would have prevented schools that earned consectuive D grades from the state from receiving state facilities funding.

A week ago, the state Department of Education withdrew the proposed change. As a result, Judge Darren Schwartz concluded, the case is now “moot.”

The department, meanwhile, has proposed a revised rule that would preserve the essence of the original proposal. Charters would get a larger share of facilities funding if they served larger numbers or low-income or special needs students. And they could lose that funding not just if they received F’s, but if they received consecutive grades lower than a C. The revised rule wouldn’t take effect until next school year, meaning no schools would immediately lose funding if it were adopted.

Christopher Norwood, the attorney who founded the independent charter schools’ association, said the group was pleased its members started receiving funding they were denied under the earlier proposal, but would keep pushing for changes to the revised rule, too.

During the legal battle, his group objected to the idea that charter schools could lose funding based on letter grades. State law stipulates only charter schools with “satisfactory” student achievement can qualify for capital outlay funding, but the education department has to decide what that means.

Norwood said he would favor a system in which funding was tied to individual students, rather than an all-or-nothing system that denied funding to some schools based on their grades. The amount each school received, he said, should be tied to the number of students with satisfactory achievement.

One reason the state ties capital funding to school grades is the risk of closure. Schools that receive multiple F’s are shut down automatically, so denying facilities funding to low-performing schools could help prevenet schools that receive state facilities funding from closing.

The state objected to Norwood’s reasoning in the case before the state’s Division of Administrative Hearings, but this aspect of the dispute was never resolved since the rule was withdrawn. As a result, he said his group would continue to advocate its position in public comments on the new rule, and also to state lawmakers.

“We believe all schools should receive capital outlay funding,” Norwood said in a text message. “At the very least it should follow the student.”

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