Florida House unveils major school improvement overhaul

Legislation unveiled this week in the Florida House — and tied to a new $200 million funding proposal — aims to move students from “persistently low-performing schools” to “schools of success” run by charter school operators with proven track records.

At the start of the legislative session, House Speaker Richard Corcoran vowed to eliminate “failure factories,” struggling schools that borrow a moniker from a Pulitzer-winning series in the Tampa Bay Times.

Until now, it had been unclear exactly how his intention would translate into legislation.

The House Education Committee is set to hear the proposed bill Thursday morning. It would set more aggressive requirements for turning around academically struggling public schools. If schools earned Ds or Fs from the state, their districts would have to begin implementing turnaround plans immediately, submitting them to state officials in September, months after school grades were released.

If those schools didn’t raise their grades to a C in a few years, districts would have to make bigger changes: Closing the school, converting it to a charter, or bringing in an outside operator.

As lawmakers heard during hearings earlier this year, those options are available to Florida school districts under the state’s existing school improvement law. But they seldom take those measures on their own. An ultimatum from the State Board of Education recently led to the Jefferson County School board choosing a charter operator to take over its persistently struggling schools, but that district’s actions are unprecedented.

Under the House legislation, if schools closed due to poor performance, or spent more than three years cycling through different interventions, they would be designated “persistently low-performing schools.”

Their communities would become eligible for “Schools of Success.” A new grant program by that name would try to entice well-regarded charter schools to open nearby.

As he outlined his spending plan during a committee meeting Tuesday, the House’s education budget chief, Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said schools could use the $200 million grant program to fund teacher recruitment, cover the cost of longer school days and years, ensure students had transportation, or promote community involvement, among other uses.

“The idea would be to bring in charter schools that specifically have been successful and have a track record of dealing with poverty-stricken areas, with generational poverty and low-performing students where the public schools have failed for more than five years and up to 10 years,” Diaz said, according to Politico Florida. “We consider this an emergency.”

Schools of Success would have to run by “success operators” — charter school organizations that could show state education officials they had served predominantly low-income student populations, raised test scores and boosted college attendance.

To qualify, charter organizations could also have been selected by one of Florida’s local school boards as a turnaround operator, or have gotten funding through either a federal grant program or a well-regarded charter school investment fund.

If they met the requirements of the program, the schools would bypass the state’s existing charter school application process. They would enjoy charter schools’ freedom from state education regulations. Their students would take state assessments, and they would receive school A-F grades. They would have to enter charter-style performance contracts with local school boards. And they would have to develop plans to enroll students who attended persistently low-performing schools.

There is no similar proposal in the state Senate. There are, however, multiple bills in the upper chamber aimed at drawing “high-impact” charter schools to high-needs areas in Florida. Lawmakers have until the May 5 end of the legislative session to reconcile their competing proposals.

This post has been updated to clarify how school operators would qualify to run Schools of Success.

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