Fla. House passes under-the-radar charter school bill

Florida charter schools would have a greater authority over their federal education funding if a bill approved today by the state House finds a path through the Senate.

HB 7101 would increase charters’ ability to form their own local education agencies, or LEAs in federal parlance. That would allow them to receive federal funds for training teachers and supporting low-income students directly, without going through their local school districts.

And districts would have to give all public schools, including charters, authority to decide how most of their federal Title I funding gets spent.

Those are two of many changes in the measure, which passed on a nearly party-line vote, with two Democrats joining Republicans in support.

Rep. Wengay Newton, D-St. Petersburg, opposed the bill, arguing charter schools are part of a “separate but equal” public education system. Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, questioned whether allowing charter schools to form LEAs would raise “constitutional” issues.

Florida’s constitution gives local school boards exclusive control over all public schools in their geographic areas.

But Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said there is no state constitutional restriction that restricts charter school networks forming LEAs.

One Florida charter school system, in the Polk County city of Lake Wales, already has. The bill would allow more charter networks to do the same.

And Diaz noted the bill would also give leaders of district-run public schools a greater say in how they use federal funding designed to help low-income students.

“The Title I dollars should go where the kids are,” he said. “Those dollars are for the students.”

Rep. Bob Cortes, R-Altamonte Springs, who helped shepherd the bill, said other changes — like eliminating a one-school-per-year cap on academically high-performing charter schools that want to replicate in academically low-performing areas — would help Florida expand educational opportunities for all students.

The big question now is what the Senate will do. One potential companion bill, SB 1362, has very little in common with the House’s legislation. But there are a lot of education proposals floating around, and plenty of deals waiting to be cut before the legislative session ends May 5.