While educators, lobbyists, and media outlets have closely watched the debate over vouchers for kids to attend private schools with public money, a less-noticed initiative has gotten steam in the Legislature: A potential expansion of charter schools.
Charters — public schools designed to be free from bureaucracy and operated by private entities – have ballooned over some two decades in Florida, creating tension between the charters and traditional public schools.
Now, Republican lawmakers are moving to open the door for even more charters across Florida.
The charter initiative showed up suddenly Thursday in the Senate, when senators were debating legislation to create a new voucher program.
Republican Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr. of Miami-Dade, inserted an amendment to make it easier to set up new charter schools in certain low-income areas where public schools have been struggling.
The areas are designated as Florida Opportunity Zones, part of a fairly-recent federal program designed to bolster economic development in low-income communities using tax incentives.
A school district “shall” enter into a performance-based agreement to open charter schools “to serve students from persistently low-performing schools and students residing in a Florida Opportunity Zone,” the legislation reads.
That’s significant because there are 427 communities designated as Opportunity Zones, according to the state, all of which could be a spot for a charter school to set up. These particular charter schools are called “Schools of Hope.”
All Florida counties have at least one opportunity zone, and large counties such as Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Miami-Dade have many zones.
The Diaz amendment also made changes to what it means to be a “persistently low-performing school” based on A through F grades given to schools in Florida. Essentially, the changes would create more persistently low-performing schools, which would allow charter schools to set up shop in those circumstances.
The state House earlier included Opportunity Zones in legislation, but the Senate language on Thursday raised concerns from the Florida Education Association – the statewide teacher’s union.
The voucher bill “includes language that was never heard in a Senate committee and was placed into the bill just hours before its final vote,” the FEA stated in a press release.
The union officials added: “The expansion of the Schools of Hope charter program via Opportunity Zones was never fully vetted by the Senate, which is not only a serious breach of protocol but a slap in the face to all voters who expect their legislators’ due diligence before a vote. As if that wasn’t enough, this same amendment further erodes local control from school districts in determining where, when, and under what circumstances new schools can open.”
This version of the story clarifies that all Florida counties have at least one opportunity zone.