Charter schools, already cresting on a decade of skyrocketing growth in Florida, would gain even more firepower under legislation approved Tuesday by the House on a mostly party-line vote.
Republican supporters said the bill will help innovative charter schools open in the face of what they say is foot-dragging or outright hostility from local school districts.
Democrats, though, sided with school districts, including Palm Beach County, which are united against the measure, which would make it easier for out-of-state “high-performing” charter school companies to enter Florida.
The bill also would force districts to use a standard contract with charter companies, which district officials say will hurt their ability to negotiate or add key oversight requirements.
Rep. Joe Saunders, D-Orlando, urged lawmakers to kill the measure (CS/HB 7083), warning it is certain to draw a constitutional challenge from 67 school boards.
“This bill…is a walking lawsuit,” Saunders said.
The measure cleared the House 68-50, with a handful of Republicans defecting to join Democrats in opposition.
But the bill’s fate is uncertain in the Senate.
Republican leaders there have so far refused to consider the proposal, as they have also rejected a proposed private-school voucher expansion and a move to grant in-state university tuition to undocumented immigrants — measures that are both strongly supported by the House.
The in-state tuition bill drew heightened support Tuesday from Gov. Rick Scott, who may see the measure as a way to help reverse polls that show him trailing Democratic rival Charlie Crist among Hispanic voters.
“My goal is to get it to the floor, it’s the right thing to do for our students,” Scott said following a Cabinet meeting.
Scott also singled out Crist, who as a Republican preceded him as governor, for signing legislation that allowed 15 percent annual tuition increases.
“Charlie Crist passed this legislation….our kids can’t afford it. And to have students who have grown up in this state not to have the same rights to have in-state tuition is wrong,” Scott said.
Democrats, though, said they suspect that opposition to the immigrant tuition bill by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, may be just political theater – designed to make Scott look heroic if the legislation finally does pass.
“This looks like an election year ploy, and that’s pathetic,” House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale said of the standoff.
It’s unusual that the education proposals are dividing Republicans, who control both chambers of the Legislature. Charter schools have been long embraced by GOP leaders, with the number of Florida students in charter schools having tripled over the past decade to 203,240 kids.
In Palm Beach County, one in 10 public school students are projected to be in charter schools next year, with 31 new schools on track to open, joining 48 charters already operating. Statewide, 578 charter schools were operating last year, records show.
About one-fifth of Florida’s charters had achieved “high-performing” status, based on student testing.
Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, the House sponsor, said concerns about the legislation are overstated. He said many of the proposals grew out of a task force including lawmakers and school district officials, who spent last year reviewing the state’s charter school system.
“This is a bill that was vetted all last year and concessions were made,” said Diaz, a dean at Miami’s Doral College, which is run by the state’s largest for-profit charter school company, Academica Management.
Academica spent $100,000 in the 2012 elections, while its construction unit, School Development LLC, gave $138,000, including $60,000 to the Florida Republican Party, according to state records reviewed by the Palm Beach Post.
Many charter schools are run by for-profit companies and operate under a contract, or charter, with local school boards.
A governing board, appointed or selected, manages them, with many schools focused on accepting low-performing students.
Charter schools are funded like other public schools in Florida – receiving taxpayer dollars based on the number of full-time students enrolled. But they are exempt from many regulations governing public schools, although their students are required to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, something that is not required of tax-funded voucher students at private schools.
While the charter measure still appears a tough sell in the Senate, the House-backed plan to expand one of the state’s private-school voucher programs, showed some signs of life Tuesday.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, shocked House leaders earlier this session by withdrawing his legislation that would allow the Florida Tax Credit Scholarship program to grow dramatically in coming years. The action was prompted by Gaetz’s insistence that students receiving taxpayer-financed scholarships take standardized tests and have schoolwide results made public, a system similar to that in public schools.
A scaled-back version of Galvano’s voucher proposal was added Tuesday to legislation (SB 1512) that would create personalized learning accounts that parents of children with profound disabilities could use to pay for tuition at private schools, tutoring, learning materials and other educational services.
Senate Democrats opposed the inclusion of Galvano’s voucher legislation, which they thought was dead for the session.
Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, argued that the amendment did not provide enough transparency.
“I was looking forward to being enthusiastic supporter of this bill but it bothers me with Senator Galvano’s amendment,” Montford said. “Specifically, what really concerns me is there is not enough accountability of how of tax dollars are being spent.”
Christine Stapleton of the Palm Beach Post contributed to this report.