‘Schools of Hope’ emerge as central education issue

A plan to draw new charter school operators into academically struggling parts of Florida has ignited the biggest, most impassioned debate over public education in this year’s state legislative session.

HB 5105 would accelerate the timetable for school districts to turn around schools that persistently struggle and create what sponsor Rep. Chris Latvala, R-Clearwater, called a “new set of standards for the best of the best charter school operators in the country to come into Florida.”

It would make it easier for those organizations to set up shop in the vicinity of struggling schools. A related budget item would create a $200 million grant program to help them recruit teachers, provide wraparound services and extend their school days.

Legislative leaders spent weeks holding hearings and hinting at plans that laid the groundwork for “Schools of Hope” legislation unveiled last week.

Latvala called the measure “our best effort to bring hope to kids who do not have any.” In a statement on the House budget, Speaker Richard Corcoran touted the package of “innovative programs to end failure factories.”

The proposal spurred an intense, partisan debate before the House Appropriations Committee approved it.

“This bill, in my humble opinion, creates a separate but unequal system,” said Rep. Kionne McGhee, D-Miami. He argued creating a special class of charter schools would run afoul of the state constitution.

“You have your traditional public schools. We get that. You have your charter, alleged, public schools. We get that,” he said. “This system that’s being created under the guise of a School of Hope is no more than another system to divide an already-divided school system that’s failing.”

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, tried to dispel what he called “this illusion that this is a separate system.” As the chief education budget-writer, he noted the spending plan teed up for a vote on the House floor would require public schools rated D or F by the state to concentrate more resources on their turnaround plans.

Recruiting top charter school organizations from around the country, he argued, was part of a broader strategy to transform the state’s 115 schools that have languished for four or more years with the lowest-possible ratings on the state’s A-F system. Those schools serve thousands of students, and Diaz asked how long lawmakers could look the other way.

“Where they fail our kids, and are derelict in their duty, it is our duty as a state to step in,” he said.

That urgency is making an impression on local school officials around the state.

The Florida Times-Union reported the Duval County School Board opposed changes that would allow prospective Schools of Hope to bypass the ordinary charter school application process.

District leaders urged the Board meeting audience to contact their state representatives this week.

“We still have time to pull together as a community so we make certain they understand that this is not what we want,” [board chair Paula] Wright said. “If they’re going to use our tax dollars, we should have a say-so.”

In support of the plan, Latvala pointed to the trial court’s ruling in a wide-ranging lawsuit challenging the condition of Florida’s public education system. The judge rejected claims the state was unconstitutionally underfunding its public schools. He also rebuffed legal attacks on charter schools and other choice programs. It was the persistence of academically struggling public schools, stuck for years with F grades, that seemed to give him the most pause.

The big question, now, is what will happen in the Senate. The upper chamber proposed sweeping amendments to a pair of charter school bills (SB 1362 and SB 796) that were aimed at bringing “high-impact” charter school networks into struggling areas. But neither bill was heard last week by the Education Committee, and the panel isn’t scheduled to meet next week. Legislative meetings are truncated by Passover and Easter.