Fla. constitution proposal would open door to more state-sponsored public schools

Travis Pillow

Entities other than school districts could be allowed to start or sponsor public schools under a proposal making its way through the state Constitution Revision Commission.

Right now, the state constitution gives 67 county-wide school districts near-exclusive authority to operate all free public schools in their geographic areas.

A proposal amended Friday by the commission’s education committee would add a new provision to the state constitution allowing the Legislature to create alternative avenues to establish public schools. The proposal by Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member, was initially intended to allow multiple charter school authorizers.

But Patricia Levesque, a longtime education reformer, amended the proposal so it wouldn’t apply only to charters.

“I think we should be thinking in a broader fashion,” she said.

State law already allows the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind, Florida Virtual School (which operates like a statewide school district) and lab schools at state universities, Levesque said. She wanted there to be a solid constitutional basis for creating more options like that in the future.The revision commission only meets every 20 years, and there’s no telling what new public school options the state might want to create over the next two decades. For example, Levesque said, Florida might want to launch a public-school collaboration across state lines.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine new forms of public schooling cropping up outside school districts. To cite one example, Amy McGrath, formerly with FLVS, now works on a virtual education effort housed at Arizona State University.

Donalds backed Levesque’s idea. She agreed public education will see changes that might be hard to predict.

“We are legislating for the next generation,” she said.

Like others discussed Friday, the proposal did not get a committee vote. If it wins final approval by the full commission, it will go before voters on the 2018 general election ballot.

The proposal received pushback from school district leaders, including Pasco County Schools Superintendent Kurt Browning. He said districts have strict rulesĀ  governing when they’re allowed to open new schools. Allowing the state to launch its own public schools, or authorize charters, could lead to “duplication of services and inefficiencies,” he said.

Then he alluded to another part of the state constitution which requires a “uniform” public school system.

“If we’re going to provide that uniform system throughout the state, there has to be a single point of entry,” he said. And local school boards should be that point of entry.

Donalds had anticipated that line of argument. She said right now, some districts sponsor charter schools but don’t screen out questionable operators or keep proper tabs on charters. Groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers say there should be at least two entities with the power to sponsor charter schools in each community. That way, if one is derelict in its duties, it can be stripped of its authority.

“We cannot hold districts accountable for good or bad authorizing right now,” Donalds said. “We can’t take that away from them.”

If authorizers compete to provide the best services and oversight, she said, that could ultimately make the system more efficient.

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