New charter school law that expands approval powers to state, not just school districts sparks concerns

Law calls for new statewide commission to review applications
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Posted at 1:38 PM, Aug 08, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-08 13:55:54-04

They’re now considered the most popular school choice for parents in Florida. Over the past five years, the number of charter schools has increased 5% across the state, with student enrollment up by more than 20%, according to Florida’s Department of Education (FDOE).

Now a quietly signed new state law is expected to put that growth on an even faster track in Florida by expanding who can approve charter school applications not just to local school boards but to a statewide commission.

Charter school advocates call it a way to streamline approvals.

“This is about just another avenue for reviewing and approving charter school applications. I think it makes perfect sense,” said Lynn Norman-Teck with the Florida Charter School Alliance.

But critics call it another push by the state’s Republican leadership to further privatize education and dismantle traditional public schools.

Though charter schools are considered public schools and publicly funded, they are privately managed and often for profit.

“They want to operate a like kingdom with a king,” Florida Senator Janet Cruz said in response to the expansion of powers to the state.

Cruz is a Democrat from Tampa and fears the law will make it easier for questionable charter schools to get the green light to operate here.

“This has nothing to do with educating our children; it has everything to do with profiting off our taxpayer dollars,” Cruz said.

For every child who attends a charter school, money is diverted away from traditional public schools.

Cruz voted against the bill during the last legislative session and questioned its need since charter schools that are denied in Florida can already appeal to a state charter school appeal commission.

In addition, state data shows neither denials nor appeals happen very often.

Last year, 65% of charter school applications were approved by local school districts, according to the FDOE. Of applicants that weren’t approved, the majority had withdrawn their applications anyway.

Since 2019, just three denials have landed in appeal. The state overturned two, according to an FDOE spokesperson.

Todd Ziebarth is with the National Charter School Alliance. When asked under what circumstances a charter school company may seek approval through the state and not the local district, which still has to negotiate a contract and monitor the charter school, Ziebarth responded, “they would probably go in circumstances in which the school district had a track record of being hostile to charter school applicants. Either being hostile on the front end and rejecting applicants or being overbearing in their oversight and monitoring of charter schools or even being capricious and their decisions for renewals of charters."

Such was the case in Hillsborough County last year when the local school board, acting against, in part, its own district’s recommendations, voted to deny the renewals of four charter schools. The rare denials by a school board got the state’s then-education boss, Richard Corcoran, involved.

Corcoran threatened to withhold funding from the district because he believed the board’s decision wasn’t based on the schools’ performances but on the district’s own financial failures. Following the state’s threats, the board swiftly moved to reverse those denials.

In a statement, the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, an industry association that offers charter school approvers support and best practices, raised concerns about Florida’s law expanding powers to the state.

“NACSA has long advocated for charter school access to more than one type of authorizer in their states, especially independent statewide authorizers. Instead of creating a full statewide authorizer in Florida – which NACSA would support – we are concerned that the current arrangement of having a new statewide authorizer only evaluating applications won’t result in high-quality, sustainable schools for students. Despite those concerns, it will be important for this new authorizing entity to make application decisions based solely on a rigorous review of all elements of the application.”

State approvals will filter through a new seven-member Charter School Review Commission. However, that commission hasn’t been created and won’t be until lawmakers fund it.

How long that will take is anyone’s guess, but former Republican Senator Manny Diaz was the lawmaker who first introduced the bill to give the state these new charter school approval powers. This summer, Governor Ron DeSantis appointed him to be Florida’s new Education Commissioner, where he now holds all the state’s public education power.