School choice-related proposals coming before Fla. constitution revision panel

Travis Pillow

The education panel of Florida’s Constitution Revision Commission will consider some of its most closely watched proposals on Friday.

A handful of them could have big school choice implications. Here’s a quick guide to the debate.

Charter districts

In recent years, the state Legislature has given more district schools the same freedom from state regulations that charter schools enjoy. A handful of schools are participating in a principal autonomy program in which they exchange autonomy for accountability. The Schools of Excellence program gave similar regulatory freedom to roughly the highest-performing one-fifth of public schools in the state.

A proposal by Roberto Martinez (a former state Board of Education member) would push this concept further. Entire school districts that maintain a letter grade of B or higher for three straight years would get the same exemptions that charter schools receive from state education laws. Their local school boards would remain the “governing board” of the local school system, and they would keep that freedom unless the district’s letter grade slipped below a C, or hit multiple grades below B in a three-year period.

For a little context, if the proposal took effect right now, 38 of Florida’s 67 countywide school districts, including the six largest — Miami-Dade, Broward, Palm Beach, Hillsborough, Orange and Duval — would qualify.

The proposal is certainly in line with current trends. The pendulum is swinging away from top-down regulation of public schools.

Bye, Bye Blaine Amendment?

Martinez has also proposed getting rid of the state’s restriction on public funding of religious activity. Some critics have argued the move is designed to open the door to school vouchers. But many people in the school choice movement have argued that door is open already.

Addressing Holmes

A 2007 Harvard Law Review article called religion “a red herring in the voucher debate.” Future legal battles over school choice, it argued, would likely focus on educational issues, not religious ones.

That article was responding to Bush v. Holmes. In that case, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a voucher program and set a template for Florida school choice legal battles to come.

Under a proposal by Erika Donalds, the state constitution would not limit the Legislature’s authority to create educational programs. As a result, it would prevent the Holmes precedent from blocking future school choice programs.

Statewide charter school authorizer

Charter school advocates, as well as the national authorizers association, have for years argued Florida should join the likes of Louisiana, New York and Massachusetts that allow some entity other than school districts — a state university, say, or a statewide oversight board — to sponsor charter schools.

But courts have argued provisions in Florida’s constitution say only districts can authorize charters.

Donalds, who is also a member of the Collier County School Board, has proposed changing that. Under her proposal, the state constitution would explicitly allow the Legislature to create non-district charter school authorizers.

Other proposals before the panel would tackle everything from community colleges to the purpose of public education. It’ll be a debate worth watching.

Proposals approved by the full panel will ultimately make their way to the full commission, which will decide whether to place them on the 2018 ballot for voters to have the final say.

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