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$200 million reserved for charter schools near bad traditional ones

A bill aimed at encouraging select charter school operators to move into areas with repeatedly low-performing schools was approved Thursday by the House Education Committee.

The committee approved the measure (PCB EDC 17-03), attached to $200 million set aside in the House budget for “Schools of Hope,” on a nearly party-line, 13-5 vote. One Democrat joined the panel’s 12 Republicans in support of the plan.

RELATED: Complete Florida Legislature coverage

Under the legislation, nonprofit charter school operators with a track record of performing well academically with low-income students could quickly open a campus in areas where a traditional public school has received a “D” or an “F” on state report cards for more than three years.

A total of 115 schools fell into that category in the last school year, according to the State Department of Education.

Charter schools are public schools operated by an entity other than the district school board.

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, has called for the state to encourage charter operators like the KIPP Foundation to open additional schools in Florida. KIPP would qualify to operate a “School of Hope” — the bill was amended to change the designation from “School of Success” — under the legislation.

“We’re spending hundreds of millions of dollars, more than ever before, to say that it is reprehensible that you would take a child and make them stay in a failure factory not for one year, not for two years, not for three years, not for four years, but five years,” Corcoran said later Thursday. “That whole system has to end.”

Republicans said the measure was a new attempt to help children trapped in schools that repeatedly seem to fail.

“We have tried everything else,” said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah. “It is our moral responsibility to make this move and provide an option for our kids. … It’s time to try something different. To say `no’ is not enough.”

Diaz is chief operating officer at Doral College, an unaccredited institution that offers courses to high school students from schools operated by Academica, a charter-school management company.

But the bill faced pointed opposition from educators and Democrats who questioned why lawmakers would give charter schools covered by the bill additional flexibility and $200 million instead of devoting more resources to troubled traditional public schools.

“You are saying funding matters,” said Cathy Boehme of the Florida Education Association, the state’s main teachers union. “You’re saying good strategies matter. And then you turn around and keep those strategies from schools that you could save from these turnaround options.”

In impassioned remarks to the committee, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, drew on his own experience as a teacher to say that students in many of the communities affected by the legislation face steep challenges that go beyond the walls of the school.

“If we sit at this table and we believe that just because we bring in a different entity, that they are going to turn around a school, we are not telling the truth,” Jones said.

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