Florida Democrats look to rein in controversial charter school law

By Troy Kinsey, Capitol Bureau Reporter
Last Updated: Friday, September 01, 2017

Florida Senate Democrats are taking on the state's controversial new Schools of Hope program, filing legislation that would impose new requirements on companies that accept taxpayer funds to build new charter schools.

Under the legislation, SB 216, 75 percent of the students attending charters built with Schools of Hope funding would have to have matriculated from nearby traditional public schools deemed to be chronically failing.

The roughly four dozen so-called 'failure factories' were one of the primary drivers behind Schools of Hope, with House Speaker Richard Corcoran (R-Land O'Lakes) casting the program as a moral imperative.

"When you can get those people and those students, the people, to come and educate those students so that they no longer have that generational poverty and they have dignity and they have a future, that's a priority," Corcoran told reporters last spring.

The 75 percent threshold, however, could be a high hurdle for many charter school operators to clear. While some parents of students attending failing schools could choose to move their children to a competing charter, many others might not, frustrating the ability of new charters to meet the threshold.

But Schools of Hope's critics say if the program is intended to cater to disadvantaged students, taxpayer dollars should be spent accordingly. Some Democrats have derided Schools of Hope as a ruse aimed at privatizing Florida's public education system.

"The chamber that sent us this product wants to call our public schools failure factories?" Sen. Gary Farmer (D-Lighthouse Point) asked during a floor debate over the program. "Any school that's failing, our policies helped contribute to that failure."

Even Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to make significant changes to Schools of Hope, which passed the upper chamber by a single vote. For that reason, unlike most Democratic education bills, the new legislation could be met by a receptive bipartisan audience. Convincing House Republicans to back the measure, though, might be markedly more difficult.

"It is reprehensible that you would take a child and make them stay in a failure factory, not for one year, not for two years, not for three years, not for four years, but five years. That whole system has to end, and so, we're going to fund it," Corcoran said.