Sweeping New Fla. Law Set to Shake Up Charter School Landscape, Testing

Managing Editor

Florida Gov. Rick Scott this week signed into law far-reaching legislation—over fierce opposition from many school officials—that is poised to dramatically alter the landscape for charter schools, assessment, and other education policy in the state.

The 274-page bill houses a smorgasbord of education policies and is supported by $419 million in funding. After gaining approval from GOP majorities in the legislature, it won the backing of Scott, a Republican, who put his signature to it despite many local district officials urging a veto.

“This bill is the most transformative pro-parent, pro-student, pro-teacher, and pro-public education bill in the history of the state of Florida,” Republican House Speaker Richard Corcoran said in a statement. “It ends failure factories.”

The Republican said the law “forces more money into the classroom by making the money follow the students.”

Many district officials, however, were incensed by the legislation and have accused lawmakers of rushing the massive plan through the statehouse with scant public scrutiny. (An analysis by Politifact cast doubts on lawmakers’ claims of a transparent process, finding that the measure was an assembly of 55 different pieces of legislation.)

One of the law’s most controversial provisions lets charter schools collect a portion of money that school districts raise through local property taxes for construction and maintenance.

The legislation has been praised by many charter school advocates in the state, who say the independent schools are too often shortchanged on funding and facilities. But it stirred outrage from many district leaders, who say it is essentially tying their hands and siphoning money away from their systems. Miami-Dade schools chief Alberto Carvalho has estimated the law will cost his district $250 million over five years.

Another provision that rankled local K-12 officials is one that creates “Schools of Hope,” a vehicle for backing charter schools in areas served by low-performing traditional public schools. That portion of the law is set to receive $140 million in funding.

Duval County schools Superintendent Patricia Willis, in an e-mailed statement, said she opposed the law because of the “devastating effects anticipated by all students in Florida.” She said her district expects that the law has implications for district funding and enrollment, and her school system would try to adjust.

The new law also reduces and makes other changes to state testing, including eliminating an Algebra II end-of-course exam, and requires a move back to paper-based tests from computer assessments in grades 3-6. It also revises and consolidates windows for other tests, among many other changes.

In addition, the law mandates that money flowing from the federal Title I program to high-poverty schools flow directly to schools, with limits on how much can be set aside for district administration.

Many members of the Florida School Boards Association agree with charter school advocates that a reliable source of funding for construction and renovation for the independent schools needs to be found, said Andrea Messina, the group’s executive director. But those district officials also want a policy that will increase available funding for both traditional public schools and charters—not detract from the former to serve the latter, as the new law will, she said.

Messina said many of her members believe the law was sweetened with a series of provisions designed to cultivate legislative support—and then rammed through before the public could understand the measure’s many flaws.

“The level of discontent that people have with the process cannot be underestimated,” Messina said. Many school board leaders believe the law “usurps local authority.”

Duval County schools officials argue that the Title I provisions will make it harder for administrators to support district-wide efforts to help students, and will make it more difficult for systems to attract “partner organizations” willing to support schools.

Some critics have suggested the law might be subject to a legal challenge, based on the claim that it was subject to too many changes with too little public input.

A Democratic state senator who opposed the bill, Gary Farmer, said in a letter asking Scott to veto it that the process for passing HB 7069 was “anything but transparent,” and that changes that channeled funding to charter schools were included in a late “278-page amendment” which was largely hidden from the public.

“While there are small pockets of good policy hidden within this bill,” Farmer wrote, “it is a monstrosity when coupled with the multitude of bad policies that have been included.”

Stay tuned for more news on HB 7069 and the implications for school policy, and charter school spending, in Florida.

This post has been updated with comments from the Florida School Boards Association.

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