School Choice & Charters

Open Enrollment, Easier Path for National Charter Operators Considered in Fla. Bill

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 19, 2015 3 min read
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Florida lawmakers have rolled several proposed K-12 policy changes into a single bill that would make it easier for out-of-state charter school operators to work in the Sunshine State, and would also allow parents to enroll their children in public schools outside their attendance zones or districts under certain conditions.

Senate Bill 1552 was approved by a Senate education committee on March 18, and is sponsored by GOP Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Republican who previously pushed unsuccessfully for legislation creating a “parent trigger” law in Florida. According to a state analysis, the legislation would do the following:

• Allow parents to enroll their children in public schools outside of their home districts (including charter schools), provided that the school of their choice is not already at maximum capacity, and if school boards participating in this “controlled open enrollment” program meet other requirements. Among other issues, school boards would have to meet federal desegregation requirements, address transportation issues for students, and “maintain socioeconomic, demographic, and racial balance.”

• Schools would have to notify parents of students in classes taught by teachers who are not certified to teach or don’t have significant experience with the relevant subject matter. Parents, in turn, could request that their children be moved out of such classes, and the district would have to accomodate the request if an “in-field” teacher had classroom space. Districts would also have to develop plans to assist teachers working in classes outside their area of certification or experience.

• Requires charter school applicants to show that their governing boards be separate from any charter school management organization. It would also prohibit an individual from serving on a charter school’s governing board if he, she, or an immediate family member receives compensation from the school or does business with the school as an independent contractor.

• Eases the restrictions on charter schools designated as high performing in the attendance zone of a school deemed to be in need of improvement.

• Allows out-of-state charter school operators to apply to be designated as a “high-performing charter school system.” The bill requires the state school board to create a plan for giving out-of-state operators this label, which confers certain benefits on charter schools in Florida. For the first three years, each such charter school operator would receive a reduction in administrative fees. (Earlier legislation from Florida Sen. Jeff Brandes also contained this proposal—national charter operators already run schools in Florida.)

• Creates the “Charter School District Pilot Program” to allow up to six school districts to begin operating as “charter districts.”

• Creates the Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation at Florida State University, in order to “advance charter school accountability, quality, and innovation,” and provide support to charters, among other responsibilities.

Brandon Larrabee of the News Service of Florida has a helpful roundup of both the bill and reactions from various lawmakers. “I think school choice in traditional public schools is very important, because no child should be limited to the school that they can attend simply based on their ZIP code,” said Jason Fischer, a Duval County school board member, in support of the bill.

Benacquisto said the portion of the bill dealing with parent requests for a new teacher is not designed to allow parents to cherry-pick their preferred teachers for their students. But Democratic Sen. Bill Montford, a Democrat who is also CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, criticized that portion of the bill as well as the plan to dramatically increase public school enrollment options.

"[Q]uite frankly, there are some times there are good reasons not to give a parent that choice,” Montford said when discussing the parent-notification portion of the bill.

And the Florida Education Association had a blunt assessment of the bill’s changes to charter school policies:

Larrabee notes that the legislation has two more committee votes coming up before it can make it to a full Senate vote.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.