Some two decades ago, Florida introduced a new type of public school – the “charter” – designed to be free from bureaucracy and run by private groups.
Today, that sprinkling of new schools has grown into one of the largest charter movements in the country, with tens of thousands of Florida students flocking to charters and bypassing traditional public schools.
A monumental legal battle is brewing over what will happen next in the landscape of public education in Florida. This fall, charter proponents in Florida will try to do what only one other state in the country has done: Get voters to amend the state Constitution to address who can or can’t control charter schools.
With more than 650 charter schools, Florida’s charters now represent about 16 percent of all public schools in the state — the second highest percentage in the country, according to 2015-16 data from the U.S. Department of Education.
Only Arizona has a larger share of charters among its public schools, about 24 percent. (Washington, D.C.’s district has the highest share, about 49 percent.)
Twenty-two years into the charter school experiment, educators, the Florida Education Association, and some state leaders have serious questions about some of the for-profit companies that run charter schools, the politics around their approvals, and the schools’ accountability to parents, students, and taxpayers. Competition — and friction — has become common between charters and traditional schools.
Under current law, applications for charter schools have to be approved locally, by elected school boards.
Amendment 8 will be on the Nov. 6 ballot, and the measure’s official summary states that it “permits the state to operate, control and supervise public schools not established by the school board.”
That language suggests that the state, rather than local boards, could approve and monitor charter schools.
Amendment 8 opponents say the language is misleading and ambiguous, and would lead to some sort of state entity usurping local authority over public charter schools. They have filed suit to kick it off the ballot.
“It’s a dangerous prospect,” said attorney Ronald Meyer, who represents the League of Women Voters of Florida and two of its officers in the lawsuit filed last week. The Southern Poverty Law Center also joined the lawsuit against Florida’s Secretary of State, Ken Detzner.
“This is all about empowering somebody else to create charter schools,” Meyer said.
But how that would happen isn’t clear. If local school boards aren’t in charge anymore, would a nonprofit group, a state commission or some other entity establish and monitor a charter school?
“We don’t’ know what’s permissible. Who knows what this amendment does,” Meyer said.
Patricia Brigham is president of the League of Women Voters of Florida and a plaintiff in the lawsuit. “We’re most concerned about the part of this amendment which would open the door for the Legislature to override local authority,” she said.
Charter school experts say that Georgia is the only state that has amended its Constitution to allow the state to create and operate charter schools, though local districts are still allowed to create charters. The amendment passed in 2012 and the state formed a charter schools commission to review new applications.
Six years later, the commission has created 21 new charter schools – not a huge growth spurt.
“So you’re talking about 3.5 new (charter) schools a year in Georgia,” said Tony Roberts, president of the Georgia Charter Schools Association.
Roberts said that “The growth has been too slow in Georgia.”
He blames it, chiefly, on opposition by local school districts. A big rise in charter schools following the Constitutional amendment “never happened in Georgia,” Roberts said.
At the same time, the charter school movement has matured, he said.
“The general public has a better understanding about what charter schools are. And I don’t think the source of the opposition is from families or parents. It’s from school districts who see them (charter schools) as a threat instead of a partner,” Roberts said.
Georgia only has about 80 charter schools, with charters representing about 3.5 percent of public schools in the state, according to federal data.
In contrast, Florida already has eight times Georgia’s figure, and more than 270,000 students in charter schools. That growth was propelled by a 1996 law that launched the charter movement in Florida.
By 2001, Florida had 148 charter schools, with about 27,000 students. By 2016, the figure rose to 653 schools and 271,000 charter students.
Critics fear that Florida’s Constitutional amendment, if voters pass it, would open the door for even more charter schools. That’s because the state – rather than local boards which often reject charter school applications – would now have a new avenue to get charters approved.
Most states have at least one other entity—not just a local school board — to approve and monitor charter schools, said Todd Ziebarth, a senior vice president at the Washington D.C.-based National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. Changing Florida’s charter-school approval process would be a new experiment.
In some very limited cases, Florida does allow state universities to create charter schools, Ziebarth said, but that’s not the same as using a state commission as some other states do.
Adding a new approval entity, he said, would provide an “opportunity for real growth,” in charters.”
However, no entity should be a “rubber stamp,” Ziebarth said. “It is to nobody’s interest for an entity to be a rubber stamp and approve a bunch of crappy charter schools.”
One member of the Florida Constitution Revision Commission, which placed Amendment 8 on the November ballot, was concerned about what the language was really supposed to be about.
In documents filed in the lawsuit last week, commissioner Roberto Martinez called the amendment a “big deal” and a “game-changer.”
“That’s why the proponents of the proposal want it, because they want to do a game-changer to the system,” Martinez said. “So I think it is important that the public be informed…that what they are voting for is something that is significant and it isn’t just about public schools, it’s something much more than that.”
Zoe Savitsky, a deputy legal director at the Southern Poverty Law Center said that with so little information about the ballot language, “We don’t really know what the effects would be. I can’t tell you if it will be a disaster or it would be wonderful.”
Brigham, the League of Women Voters of Florida president, said her group’s position is that school boards “should be nonpartisan” in making decisions about public schools, including charters.
But, she added: “We know the Legislature is very partisan. Politics would undoubtedly enter the picture with a state-run system operating (charter) schools.”