Florida may shift students away from failing schools

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Calling it an “emergency,” Florida may agree to spend up to $200 million to shift students from chronically failing schools to charter schools run by private organizations.

The idea crafted by House Speaker Richard Corcoran and other top Republicans in the Florida House is this: Offer up money to help build “Schools of Hope” in neighborhoods, many of them in urban and poor areas.

The schools would be within 5 miles of or in the zones of existing traditional public schools that have repeatedly earned low grades under the state’s school grading system.

“No longer will we rob children of dignity and hope,” Corcoran said. “Now every single child will be afforded an opportunity of a world class education.”

Corcoran, a Republican from Land O’Lakes, has touted the idea for months of using charter schools to serve low-income students, but his ambitious proposal is sure to ignite an ongoing debate over expanding the role of charter schools. Charter schools are considered public, but they are run by private organizations that sometimes use privately run companies to manage them.

The “Schools of Hope” proposal is coming at the same time that the Republican-controlled Legislature is considering a contentious idea to force school districts to share part of their local property taxes with charter school operators.

Rep. Shevrin Jones, the lead Democrat on the House’s main education committee, called the House plan part of a long-running movement in the state to offer assistance to charter schools at the expense of traditional public schools run by districts.

“We are creating a mess,” said Jones, who is from Broward County. “We should be taking $200 million to put the resources into those failing schools to ensure those schools are successful.”

Republicans, however, counter that many of the low-performing schools already get extra money from the state and from the federal government but have been unable to make steady improvements. They cite the recent decision of Jefferson County –a rural county in north Florida — to hand over its schools to a charter operator after years of struggle.

More than 100 schools statewide have been consistently ranked as low performing for more than three years.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican and chairman of the House Education Committee, said legislators met with charter school operators and asked what it would take for them to set up schools in the neighborhoods now served by traditional public schools. He said one answer was that they needed help paying for new buildings to house the school.

The House proposal would create both a grant program that would pay for expenses such as teacher training and other startup costs, and a loan program that would pay up to 25 percent of any school construction costs. It would also extend the money only to school operators that are already either nationally recognized or have a record of successfully serving students with a high percentage of students from low-income families.

A big question is whether or not the proposal will survive a looming fight during the next month between the House and Senate over a new state budget. Both sides have crafted vastly different spending plans.

But Sen. David Simmons, the Senate Republican in charge of the panel that oversees education spending, said he is open to any idea that seeks to help students at low-performing schools. Simmons has been championing his own proposal to offer a long school day at the same schools.

“I’m looking at anything that works,” Simmons said.

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