How Florida charter school authorizing fits in the national picture

Travis Pillow

Florida is among the states where school districts (LEAs) are largely the only charter school authorizers allowed. Source: NACSA

Wyoming, Alaska, Virginia, Maryland, Iowa, Kansas and, for the most part, California.

What does Florida have in common with those states? Its charter school authorizing landscape, according to a new policy brief from the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Of the 44 states that allow charter schools, the brief shows, nearly all of them allow some kind of entity other than a school district — a statewide board, colleges or universities, the state education agency — to authorize charter schools.

Florida joins the handful of states where districts are the only authorizers allowed. A state constitutional amendment could soon change that, if voters approve it in November. The state technically allows universities to authorize charter schools. But those are only in rare cases where higher education institutions want to set up new lab schools for teaching and research.

Similarly, in California, districts are generally the only authorizers allowed, but the state Board of Education can hear appeals from charter school applicants that local school boards reject. The state may authorize those schools, but districts still handle day-to-day monitoring and oversight.

This arrangement is similar to one Florida’s new Schools of Hope law contemplates if school districts refuse to enter contracts allowing Hope Operators to open new charter schools. If districts rebuff Hope Operators’ letters of intent to open new schools, the operators can contract directly with the state board instead.

A group of school districts has challenged that law in court, but so far, the law has been upheld. The districts cite past court rulings that held Florida’s constitution gives school districts exclusive control over all public schools in their geographic areas. But there are competing interpretations of what, exactly, that entails. Courts have held the state Board of Education can overturn local boards during the charter school appeal process, for example, but that it can’t authorize charter schools directly.

Some states, like Massachusetts, don’t allow districts to authorize charter schools at all. A statewide board is the only authorizer, and that has created its own set of challenges.

NACSA generally favors allowing at least two different types of authorizers in every jurisdiction. That ensures charter schools can apply to the state, for example, if a local school board might turn them down. But it also makes it easier for states to hold authorizers accountable if they do a poor job in their oversight.

Different authorizers can have different roles. The NACSA brief notes school districts are often well-suited to the task of authorizing because they tend to be familiar with local concerns and able to win buy-in from the communities they serve.

Independent charter boards might struggle to win community buy-in, but their narrow focus on charters also might maximize their expertise. For that reason, independent boards in communities like Washington DC are often touted as models. And NACSA has previously advocated that statewide authorizers take on the task of overseeing operators, like virtual charter schools, that might reach students outside the geographic boundaries of a particular district. That currently isn’t an option in Florida.

This should put some of the debate around Florida’s proposed Amendment 8 into perspective. Contrary to some assertions, allowing multiple authorizers wouldn’t necessarily roll out the welcome mat for more charter schools. That welcome mat is already unfurled, thanks to state laws that have drawn complaints among several school boards recently because they limit school boards’ discretion to reject would-be charter school applicants.

Allowing other authorizers may help bring Florida more in line with other states, including those with high-performing charter school sectors. And it may ultimately relieve charter school political tensions, rather than exacerbate them. But much of that would depend on how the Legislature would use its expanded authority if the amendment were to win voter approval.

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