House leaders mull plan to allow districts access to 'schools of hope' funding By Jessica Bakeman 04/26/17 08:52 PM EDT

TALLAHASSEE — House leaders are considering letting districts compete with charter operators for a pot of $200 million that would help them turn around failing schools.

The chairmen of House education committees reached out to school district superintendents last week to solicit suggestions for changes to HB 5105, the so-called “schools of hope” legislation that is in play in the still-fluid budget negotiations. School district leaders are among the most powerful outspoken critics of the legislation, which would incentivize charter operators to open schools in communities where traditional schools are chronically underperforming.

Broward County schools superintendent Robert Runcie and some of his peers pitched a plan to lawmakers: Let districts run “schools of hope” by giving them access to the additional funding as well as statutory and regulatory flexibility that would be afforded to qualifying charter operators.

“What we’re arguing for is an equitable playing field, where we would have the ability to be able to compete for the dollars that are set aside,” said Runcie, leader of the nation's sixth-largest and state’s second-largest district, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

The lower chamber’s Republicans are open to it, two leaders told POLITICO Florida on Wednesday.

Rep. Michael Bileca, a Miami Republican who chairs the House education committee and has been a chief proponent of the legislation, said the bill sets “a very high bar” for the performance of charter school operators that would be eligible to qualify for the incentives. If school districts could meet that bar by demonstrating success with impoverished students, they might be able to participate, as well.

“Something we’re exploring is, if a district is able to achieve that in those high areas of poverty, that could open up some of the funding,” he said.

As for whether a district could become a “hope operator” under the bill, Bileca said: “We’re looking at possible pathways for that.”

The chamber’s top education budget writer, Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., said the legislation could ultimately create a scenario where a district is able to turn a failing school into a charter but maintain control over it rather than turning it over a private operator. Districts could try different strategies that wouldn’t be possible under current laws and regulations. For example, they could implement an enhanced version of a “principal autonomy” pilot program Diaz crafted last year, under which principals act as schools’ C.E.Os and are given more leeway in budgeting and staffing.

Also, the schools wouldn’t be subject to teachers unions collective bargaining agreements, which Republican leaders see as obstacles to progress. The statewide teachers union, the Florida Education Association, has been an outspoken opponent of the plan, along with Democratic allies in the Legislature.

“What we’re looking for is solutions to end the cycle that’s going on in these schools, and if that means an innovative solution happens to be from one of these superintendents and these districts, as long as it’s not the same thing over again and just injecting more money, … we are interested,” said Diaz, a Hialeah Republican.

“If they are successful and are qualified for ‘schools of hope,’ we are fine with that,” he said.

He said the House is considering not only feedback from superintendents but also proposals from their colleagues in the Senate. Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the upper chamber’s education budget committee, has proposed a bill that would give traditional public schools access to additional funding for “wraparound” social services like health care.

The House passed its version of the “schools of hope” bill, and the Senate agreed to include it in larger budget negotiations. Since Tuesday afternoon, legislative leaders have said they were close to a budget deal and would soon begin public conference meetings. Lawmakers will be able to negotiate changes to the legislation during those meetings, whenever they happen.

“Whatever ideas bring to bear a better result for these kids is what I’ve always been open to listening to,” Bileca said. “We still have a window."

Sharon Nesvig, a spokeswoman for FEA, said the union wants lawmakers to provide districts additional funds for offering social services to students. "But we do not support turning public schools into charter schools," she said, adding she also disagrees that charters operated by districts would necessarily fall outside union-negotiated contracts.

"Contrary to the narrative, collective bargaining agreements aren't the problem," she said.

UPDATED with statement from Florida Education Association.

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