Court: Only School Districts Can Authorize Charters in Fla.

Published March 1, 2009

A Florida state appellate court has stripped an independent charter school authorizer of its power, meaning the only course charter schools in the state have for approval is once again through the local school districts, whose administrators often view them as threats.

In response, a bill filed in the state Senate would create a new third-party authorizing agency to work with school boards in what charter school proponents hope the education establishment will view as a more-collaborative and less-threatening way.

According to the court’s ruling, issued December 2, the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission was “facially unconstitutional.”

The ruling further states the 2006 law establishing the commission, signed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush (R), “poses a total and fatal conflict with article IX, section 4 of the Florida Constitution,” saying it “permits and encourages the creation of a parallel system of free public education escaping the operation and control of local elected school boards.”

Different Direction

Bush signed the excellence commission into law as an independent statewide authority able to sponsor charter schools directly, said the group’s chairwoman, Liza McFadden.

The commission also was given the power to authorize municipalities, state universities, and community colleges to co-sponsor charter schools in Florida in order to expand “educational opportunities to students,” according to the commission’s Web site.

New Legislation

Though the commission will not appeal the ruling, McFadden said, “We have stuck together, and are working with the support of the Senate and House leadership, and would like to get a new charter school authorizer in place.”

On January 12 state Sen. Stephen Wise (R-Jacksonville) filed Senate Bill 610, which calls for the commission to be able to “support and participate as co-sponsors in developing and supporting charter schools.”

The proposed charter school authorizer, McFadden said, would work with local school boards in authorizing charter schools.

“One, we would involve the school districts, which hasn’t been done before, and two, a study would go out to the community that would find out which schools are needed,” McFadden said.

Innovative Solution

By employing a study to find out which type of school—specialized, traditional, or vocational—is most needed in each community, McFadden said, the proposed new authorizing commission would be no threat to district control “because the community would be dictating what charter school they would need and would be seeking out charter schools who want to set it up.”

McFadden added, “When you look at where education reform has made its greatest gains, it is when you take on the biggest things. When you do the right thing, and take on hard reform issues, the biggest changes are made. We hope these folks would see [this new approach] is the right thing.”

Elisha Maldonado ([email protected]) writes from California.