HB 7069 ruling shines light on long-simmering charter school disputes

Florida school districts have long asserted the power to approve and reject would-be charter schools as they saw fit. Legal gray areas remain. But a recent court ruling could help clarify some of them.

The state constitution gives school boards the power to oversee all public schools within their boundaries. However, it also gives the Legislature and state Board of Education the power to regulate their use of that authority. The tension between state and local power has been at the heart of more than a decade’s worth of legal battles over charter schools.

Districts won a crucial legal victory in 2008 when courts shut down a state-created Schools of Excellence Commission that could authorize charter schools. They lost a battle last year, when the Palm Beach County School Board challenged the state’s charter school appeal system.

In between, some school boards argued the state overstepped its authority when it tried to create a standard contract that would serve as a starting point in negotiations between districts and charter schools.

Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper dealt that argument a blow last week, when he released a written ruling upholding a contentious, charter-friendly 2017 law on all counts.

The 13 school boards challenging the law argued a provision of HB 7069 standardizing charter school contracts usurped their constitutional authority to oversee charters.

Not so, Cooper ruled:

Both the standard contract and its implementing regulations contemplate a process of negotiation and agreement between charter applicants and their sponsoring school districts-a process that has continued to play out in actual negotiations involving revisions to the standard charter contract. … Florida law expressly contemplates that charter applicants and their school-board sponsors will still “negotiate” charter contracts.

Cooper also rebuffed 13 school boards who argued the new Schools of Hope program was unconstitutional. If school boards refuse to allow a qualified Hope Operator to open a school in the vicinity of an existing, persistently low-performing public school, the law allows that charter school organization to contract directly with the state.

The school districts argued that arrangement would run afoul of the 2008 Schools of Excellence ruling. Again, not so, wrote Cooper:

The fact that the State Board of Education may contract with a hope operator if a local school board refuses to do so as required by law does not mean that HB 7069 “eliminat[es] any role for local district school boards.” Local Boards either prevent their local schools from remaining in a persistently low·performing state under§ 1002.333(1)(b), Fla. Stat., or fulfill their statutory obligation to enter into performance-based agreements and supervise any schools of hope themselves under § 1 002.333(4)(b ), there will be no occasion for the State Board to contract with hope operators directly.

 

The districts could still decide to appeal Cooper’s ruling. If they do, the case could help define the balance of power between school districts and the state. And that balance of power is back in the headlines, as a battle over charter schools brews in Leon County.

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