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School districts opposing legislation to standardize Florida charter applications

CLEARWATER — Though the 2014 legislative session is months away, public and charter schools are already polishing their speaking points in their seemingly-endless battle over students and funding.

The Pinellas and Pasco school districts are meeting with principals, teachers and other stakeholders to outline legislative priorities for next year, and a new law that creates a standard operating contract for all Florida charter schools seems to top the list. Pinellas County school district attorney David Koperski and other legal officials from like-minded school districts plan to testify against the new law, which would go into effect next school year and is still being developed, said Superintendent Michael Grego.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run by private companies, are required to follow the state curriculum and standards but have more freedom to enhance them than traditional schools. However, the Florida Constitution states that school boards are to “operate, control and supervise all free public charter schools within the school district,” which means they should also have the final say on whether a school is fit to open, Grego said.

“If charter schools desire to fill a niche or an innovative purpose in a community, we ought to be able to evaluate what that niche is,” Grego said. “A standardized contract does not allow local school boards to do that, which is shortsiding the whole purpose of charter schools, which is to stand out and be different.”

Charter applications are a double-edged sword, said Lynn Norman-Teck, director of communications for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

Before, school districts were allowed to dictate the contracts completely, making it difficult for the schools to open in places where charter schools are seen as a “hostile competitor,” she said. Schools could spend thousands of dollars in attorney fees to weed through contract language, and a standard contract makes sure the application process is fair regardless of location, she said.

“We’ve seen through the years some language in contracts that have just been choking at charter schools, implementing or demanding certain things that a charter school has to do that would impede its freedom with curriculum,” Norman-Teck said.

If a charter school meets application requirements, though, there isn’t anything a school board can do to prevent it from opening, according to state law. A standard application would make it much harder for a school district to deny a charter and would debilitate the negotiation process, School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook said.

“If we’re the ones that are entering into the contract, we’re the ones that want to write the contract, period,” Cook said.

School districts are also campaigning for equitable funding, claiming that they are in constant competition with charters.

Of the $18 million Pinellas County received for teacher salary increases from the state, about $3.7 million went to charter schools. For the last three years, traditional public schools haven’t received any state funding for school maintenance and renovation projects, while charter schools have received more than $200 million. Public schools get some funding for facilities when the state doles out class size allocations, while charters do not, said Steve Swartzle, the school district’s consulting lobbyist with Florida School Services.

Pasco county added a lobbying measure to increase oversight and accountability for charter and virtual management companies and opposes expanding the use of tax funds to support for-profit schools.

The school districts also hope to get more state funding to help them decrease class sizes and remain in compliance with the state’s laws, as well as have as much flexibility as charter schools are granted. Currently, district schools are expected to meet classroom-by-classroom requirements, while charter schools are only expected to meet a school average per grade level, Swartzle said.

“We’ve had time to do our research, so I’m excited to go to Tallahassee and make our case,” said Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers. “Lawmakers need to see that we’re doing innovative things too and we’re seeing huge learning gains, but continuing to deplete our funding sources is not helping.”

In the end, though, the increase in charter school development is completely dependent on parent demand, Norman-Teck said. Pinellas County’s official school enrollment numbers show that 6,037 students are enrolled in charter schools this school year, a 16.5 percent increase from last school year. Public schools had 95,662 students enrolled — about a 1-percent drop from last school year. While public school enrollment in the county dropped by 974 students, nearly the same number of students, 855, enrolled in area charter schools.

Pinellas, which had 21 charter schools last school year, added four this year, as did Hillsborough County, which now has 42. Last school year, Pasco County had only five charter schools but opened two more this school year. Two new charters are already set to open in Pasco next August, while two charter schools in Pinellas were denied at last week’s school board meeting. Hillsborough County has already received 14 charter school applications for next school year.

The Hillsborough County School Board has yet to discuss their legislative priorities for next session, but board member Doretha Edgecomb said school district officials “have been disappointed that so much of the legislation has been against traditional public schools.”

Pinellas School Board members are set to endorse their legislative priorities at a December meeting, Swartzle said.

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