At Last? Will Florida Finally Get More Charter School Authorizing Options?


At Last? Will Florida Finally Get More Charter School Authorizing Options?

A bill pending in Florida’s House of Representatives could finally accomplish what charter school advocates have been working on for nearly two decades: adding an alternative to district charter school authorizers.

The legislature tried before: 14 years ago, it created an independent charter board, only to be overturned by the courts. Now, pending legislation would empower state universities and community colleges (HEIs—Higher Education Institutions) to authorize charter schools.

While the state’s current charter school law carves out a few minor alternative pathways and provides a state-level appeal option, authorizing is by and large limited to school districts. Advocates have been working since the early-2000s to change this dynamic and introduce a true alternative.

Here’s some more background. In 2006, the state established the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, a statewide independent charter board. School districts challenged the Commission’s constitutionality. A lower court ruled that, indeed, the Commission violated a constitutional provision, stating that the local “school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.” Despite questions remaining on how the phrase “within the school district” could be interpreted, the ruling was never appealed. The Commission was dissolved before ever receiving a charter school application.

Charter school advocates have pointed to the existing authorizing structure to challenge this interpretation: while school districts are the primary pathway for charter schools, statute does provide two alternative paths for specific types of charter schools. State universities may establish and authorize “charter lab schools” and Florida has three. Additionally, community colleges may establish and authorize “charter technical career centers” and Florida has 11 such schools.

NACSA has long advocated the value of multiple authorizing pathways, and experience shows that this can strengthen a state’s charter school sector. A diversity of authorizers can promote professional practices and provide checks and balances in charter approval, oversight, and renewal decisions. When authorizing is left only or primarily to school districts, it’s problematic for a variety of reasons, including the inability to sanction or work around a bad authorizer that has exclusive authorizing rights in that locale. A statewide independent authorizer—specifically dedicated to quality authorizing—can lead to a stronger charter sector. Just look at Massachusetts, Texas, and Georgia as examples.

That said, NACSA warns against the proliferation of authorizers in a state. A large number of authorizers in a jurisdiction—including many institutions whose sole mission is not quality authorizing—can produce extreme variations in standards and practices among authorizers. We’ve seen this in Ohio, Minnesota, and Indiana, states that have had to work hard to clean up their authorizing. In some cases, low-performing schools closed by one authorizer will go “authorizer shopping”—looking for another authorizer for approval. In these situations, a state is better served by having a smaller number of authorizers committed to quality chartering; quality really is more important than quantity.

All authorizers should be held to a high standard. That’s why it’s heartening to see that the pending legislation requires the Florida State Board of Education to develop and annually produce an evaluation of all authorizers, districts, and HEIs. While the legislation doesn’t specify sanctions for low-performing authorizers, an annual and objective evaluation of authorizer quality is an important first step.

If Florida legislators do decide to allow HEIs as authorizers, we encourage them to learn from other states that have done the same and set strong, enforceable standards.

Finally, let’s remember: no one authorizing structure works best in all circumstances. Good authorizing requires a relentless focus on quality—approving only strong applications, providing effective oversight, and exercising appropriate interventions.

We’re paying close attention to Florida as the bill moves forward and stand ready to support changes that lead to better charter school authorizing.

 

Jason Zwara analyzes and develops charter authorizing policies as part of NACSA’s policy team. He tracks state and federal charter school legislation and develops policy resources for members and advocacy partners. Have policy questions? Please reach out to Jason at jasonz@qualitycharters.org