Three states—Florida, New Mexico, and South Carolina—have recently passed legislation allowing statewide bodies to approve new charter schools and oversee them, rather than leaving those responsibilities solely in the hands of local school districts.
The bills were driven at least in part by concerns that some districts don’t welcome the independent but publicly financed schools, and sometimes are actively hostile to them. Some charter advocates also argue that the changes will lead to higher-quality charter schools.
“State policymakers are now realizing that a key to quality charter schools is the authorizing function,” said Greg Richmond, the president of the Alexandria, Va.-based National Association of Charter School Authorizers. “That’s relatively new. … Ten years ago, state legislatures didn’t realize that.”
While the governors of New Mexico and South Carolina have signed the new measures into law in their states, Gov. Jeb Bush had not yet signed the Florida bill as of last week. Though he was expected to do so, some critics were urging him to veto it.
The Florida School Boards Association argued in a letter to the Republican governor last month that the measure would impede districts’ ability to manage school growth issues, among other problems. Citing an opinion from a private law firm, the association contended that the legislation runs afoul of a provision in the state constitution saying that “the school board shall operate, control, and supervise all free public schools within the school district.”
“I am sitting here with a legal opinion that says it’s unconstitutional,” said Wayne Blanton, the executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. “We feel this bill is fatally flawed in a number of areas.”
The Florida and South Carolina measures call for new, statewide boards whose sole mission is to authorize charter schools.
Charter experts have increasingly argued that having a body dedicated only to chartering is the most promising way to help ensure the quality of such schools. Arizona, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Idaho, and Utah currently have such bodies, according to Mr. Richmond.
With its new law, South Carolina also joins Colorado in having a statewide charter school district.
“This bill has been a priority for us because creating more charter schools in our state would be a great win for every parent and student in South Carolina,” Gov. Mark Sanford, a Republican, said in a statement issued May 3, the day he signed the measure.
“God makes every child unique, and we believe it makes sense to have a diversity of choices that fits with that diversity of kids,” the governor added.
Charter advocates in South Carolina have charged that the reason the state has only 27 charters is that some districts have turned a cold shoulder to the idea. The state’s law was first enacted a decade ago. (“South Carolina Eyes State Charter District,” Feb. 22, 2006.)
But Paul W. Krohne, the executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association, argued that “charter schools only can survive if there is a long-standing and strong relationship with local schools.”
“As public school folks, we have a vested interest, especially when those charters are in the early grades,” he said, and their students may end up later in district schools. “The new law will allow them to throw that whole connection away.”
The Florida measure calls for forming the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission to authorize and oversee charter schools. Members would be appointed by the state board of education from a pool of candidates recommended by the governor, the president of the state Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Republican-controlled legislature approved the measure May 4 by a vote of 89-25 in the House, where a handful of Democrats voted aye, and by 34-6 in the Senate, where the “no” votes were evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.
“Here in Florida, there are some school districts that not only coexist but get along well with charters,” said Sen. James E. King Jr., a Republican who is vice chairman of the education appropriations committee. “There are other districts, however, where it’s a cat-and-dog fight, day in and day out.”
Mr. King noted that districts may petition the state board of education to be the exclusive authorizers of charters within their boundaries.
“The attitude with us would be, ‘Listen, school boards, if you can’t get along [with charters], we’re going to come up with a new route that a charter school can follow.’ ”
Good News, Bad News
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson first proposed that a state body altogether replace school districts in authorizing charters. But that plan faced serious opposition in the legislature.
Under the bill that the Democratic governor signed in March, school boards retained the authority to authorize charter schools, but the state’s Public Education Commission gained the right to do so as well. That body was set up in 2003 to replace the state board of education, which was disbanded.
Until now, districts alone could authorize charter schools in New Mexico. Rejected applicants can appeal to the secretary of education, though, who may order the district to approve the application or renewal. If the district still refuses to issue the charter, then the applicant may take the matter to a state district court.
Lisa S. Grover, the executive director of the New Mexico Coalition for Charter Schools, said relations between charters and districts have been getting “more and more acrimonious.”
Overall, she said, she expects the new law to help the charter movement in New Mexico, which has grown substantially in recent years. Currently, there are 50 charters in the state, with a dozen more expected to open in the fall.
“We are seeing our new charter law as a way to really overhaul how we do business around charter schools,” Ms. Grover said.
Mack Mitchell, the executive director of the New Mexico School Boards Association, called the new law “good news and … bad news.”
He said districts have long felt frustrated that, when a local board voted down a charter approval, it would usually be forced to authorize the school anyway after an appeal. Mr. Mitchell said he had been hearing complaints from local board members in places where that was happening.
“Those districts … kept saying, well, if someone else is going to make us charter them, let them charter them, and let them deal with them,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2006 edition of Education Week as States to Let Special Boards Award Charters