Fla. House ‘Schools of Hope’ backers hope for compromise

Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, is a key backer of the Florida House’s charter school legislation.

Two key architects of the Florida House’s “Schools of Hope” plan said a compromise with the Senate might be within reach.

But at the same time, they said continuing to simply pour money into struggling schools will not yield results. They argue Schools of Hope present a new approach.

“These kids that are sitting in schools that have failed five, seven, and 10 years,” Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said in an interview. “We can’t wait anymore. Some of the solutions are going to work for particular communities. Let’s provide all of the solutions. Let’s not say ‘No,’ just because we don’t like who is providing the solution.”

Diaz, the chair of the PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, said the state needs to address the issue immediately, calling it an “emergency.”

The Florida House and Senate are wrangling over the House’s $200 million plan to move students from struggling public schools into new schools operated by nationally recognized charter school operators.

Earlier this week, Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, added an amendment to a teacher bonus bill (SB 1552) Tuesday that would overhaul the state’s system for turning around struggling schools.

Charter schools would remain on the menu of turnaround options for districts to choose from, as current law allows. But Simmons’ proposal bill would eliminate the “Schools of Hope” portion of the House’s plan.

It would encourage school turnaround approaches such as providing students with wraparound services, giving charter-like autonomy to principals and extending school days by at least an hour.

Like Diaz, Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, who helped shepherd the House’s legislation, said he was still digesting details of the Senate’s proposal. He said bringing in national charter school operators to help those struggling schools is a critical component of the Schools of Hope legislation that should remain in the bill.

“They have a record of success in areas of poverty, whether it is Harlem, New York City, Washington D.C., the Phoenix area or part of Texas, where they have high poverty areas,” he said. “Some of these schools have literally 99 percent going to college, which is literally turning around people’s lives through education. These are the kind of operators we want to bring to Florida.”

Diaz recalled his experience as a school administrator in Miami-Dade County in 2003, when he said the district would pump money into a struggling school.

“Instead of providing autonomy under the right leader, (they) filled the building with bureaucrats from the central office, not allowing for the instructional leader to take control,” he said.

Rep. Manny Diaz

As a result, he said, students left the school and teacher morale remained low.

“What I am saying is, it doesn’t work if you continue to throw resources into these (schools) and then you micromanage them,” he said. “You never change what you are doing.”

Diaz said the goal is to improve students’ lives.

“At the end of the day we will have a version of ‘Schools of Hope’ and immediately begin to have an impact on some of these kids,” he said.

Latvala said that with 115 D- and F-rated schools languishing in turnaround efforts for four years or more, it is important to think outside of the box.

“I think that if the traditional public school is not working in the community by virtue of the number of (struggling) schools on the list and how long they have been there, some for ten years, it doesn’t hurt to try something new,” he said.

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