Fla. House backs ‘Schools of Hope’

Florida lawmakers want to shift students from “persistently struggling schools” to new “Schools of Hope.”

Legislation advancing in the Florida House would set a tighter timetable for D- or F-rated schools to raise their letter grades. And it would create a new program to bring charter school organizations with a history of serving large numbers of low-income students into areas where existing schools struggle.

“We have to change the way that we do things and have a new approach,” Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, said as he shepherded the bill through the House Education Committee. “That’s what this bill is trying to do.”

Latvala pointed to the impoverished rural school system in Jefferson County, one school district over from the state capital, where schools languished for years with dwindling enrollment and some of the lowest achievement in the state. School officials there are now negotiating an unprecedented charter school takeover.

“This morning, there are kids within an hour’s drive of where we’re sitting that are in an environment that gives them no hope,” he said.

The financial and academic emergency in Jefferson may have been an outlier. But the rural North Florida district is not entirely alone. House research shows 115 Florida public schools have languished in mandatory turnaround plans for four years or more.

The legislation would label those schools “persistently low-performing.” And it would aim to bring “Schools of Hope,” run by well-regarded charter school organizations, into areas served by those schools. (The House revised the name of the program from the first draft of its legislation, which referred to Schools of Success.)

A $200 million grant program would help those schools recruit teachers, pay for longer school days, buy buses to transport students to their schools or cover other startup costs. A revolving loan program would help them pay for facilities.

Education Committee chairman Mike Bileca, R-Miami, has held hearings with visitors from top national charter school networks. The grants and loans, coupled with the five-year performance contracts that would allow Schools of Hope to bypass the usual charter school application process, were designed to eliminate the barriers those organizations see when they think about opening schools in Florida, he said.

Democrats on the committee questioned why the Legislature didn’t steer the money into existing low-performing schools. Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, cited his own experience as a teacher in Broward County schools, working with students in generational poverty.

“I believe in choice. I believe a parent should be able to send a child where they want to,” Jones said. But, he added, lawmakers shouldn’t pretend that “just because you bring in a different entity, that’s going to change the dynamic, because that’s not the truth.”

Cathy Boehme of the Florida Education Association warned the bill could create a “parallel” system of public schools. That phrase comes from the state Supreme Court’s ruling in Bush v. Holmes, which struck down a voucher program.

Two school board members from Pinellas County – including Renee Flowers, who represents five struggling schools examined by the Tampa Bay Times in a Pulitzer-Prize-winning series – cited problems with charter schools in their district that had shut down or been taken over. Her board colleague, Peggy O’Shea, said the district has high-performing charters, but they seldom enroll low-income students. It would be wrong, she argued, to view “charter schools as the answer.”

But Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, pushed back, noting the House legislation targets a specific kind of charter school. To qualify as School of Hope operator, a charter organization would have to meet a set of performance benchmarks, which require them to serve more than 70 percent low-income students and raise college attendance rates above 80 percent. A school could also qualify by receiving funding from certain federal or philanthropic sources, or by getting approved from a local school board as a turnaround operator. Neither the troubled organizations with shuttered schools, nor the high-performing ones that serve mostly affluent students, would likely meet those standards.

Later, debating the bill, Sullivan said she hopes that by the time her eight-year term in the House ends, she will see a list of struggling schools that numbers far lower than 115.

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