FILE - Florida Rep. Stan McClain

Florida Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala.

The House Education Committee on Wednesday approved a bill that would authorize state universities and colleges to seek approval from the state’s Department of Education (DOE) to sponsor charter schools.

Florida charter schools are taxpayer funded, privately run public schools created through an agreement or "charter” with school districts or, since last year, directly with the state’s DOE.

During the 2018-19 school year, about 313,000 students – more than 10 percent of the state’s 2.84 million preK-12 children – were enrolled in 658 charter schools in Florida.

House Bill 953, sponsored by Rep. Stan McClain, R-Ocala, was approved in a 16-1 vote and now goes to the House floor.

A Senate companion, Senate Bill 1578, filed by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, has passed through the Senate Education Committee and awaits hearings before the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education and the Appropriations Committee.

Right now, there are three university “charter lab schools” and 11 Florida College System (FCS) charter schools statewide that allow students to obtain an associate degree upon graduation from high school in conjunction with local school districts.

Under the bill, the state’s 12 universities and 28 FCS institutions, which include community colleges and state colleges, can solicit applications from the DOE and sponsor charter schools.

HB 953 would expand that capacity to allow universities and colleges to establish their own state-authorized schools, drawing from the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), the state’s per-student funding formula based on student enrollment.

The bill would allow university-sponsored charter schools to serve students from multiple school districts and requires the DOE, in collaboration with sponsors and operators, to develop a “sponsor evaluation framework.”

“All this bill does is allow our nationally recognized colleges and universities” to operate charter schools, McClain said, noting “no local dollars will be used” to operate them.

The lone dissenter, Rep. Delores Hogan-Johnson, D-Fort Pierce, questioned if for-profit corporations or developers would be permitted to build schools and rent or lease them to universities and colleges – a standard practice for about 45 percent of Florida's charter schools managed by for-profit corporations.

“If a developer says, ‘I will build the building and set up a charter school’” as a school impact fee offset and turns it over to a university or college, McClain said, it would be no different than what is allowed now.

“They’ve done that in the past,” McClain said.

Florida authorized charter schools in 1997 to address “failing” public schools, mostly in urban areas; 43 percent of the state’s charter schools are in Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties with high minority enrollments.

The DOE in 2019 reported “charter schools outperformed their peers in traditional schools in nearly every category,” but that assessment has been challenged by Integrity Florida and the LeRoy Collins Institute (LRI), a nonprofit affiliated with the State University System of Florida located at Florida State University.

“When controlling for school and community variables,” LRI stated in a Feb. 6 report, “charter schools do not perform significantly different from traditional schools on test scores of nonwhite students.”

LRI’s study, “Florida Charter Schools: Not as Good, Or as Bad, as Advertised,” offered mixed marks on the state’s charter schools.

Findings included:

  • Florida’s charter schools are not less racially diverse, but are less economically diverse than traditional schools;
  • Charter schools do not adversely affect the racial and economic segregation of nearby traditional schools;
  • Florida’s system of accountability and oversight regarding charter schools is strong but can be improved;
  • Transparency is key to parental choice, yet is poor in both charter and traditional schools;
  • Innovation is key but is not adequately measured or shared.