Tuesday, April 9

Florida charter schools mostly exempt from 2022 education laws. Here’s why.

Gov. Ron DeSantis headed to a Pasco County charter school last week to forcefully defend HB 1557, a new law dealing with school gender lessons and health services that critics are calling the “don’t say gay” bill.

He talked about the importance of protecting families from the overreach of schools that attempt to make decisions about children without parental input.

“In Florida, we not only know that parents have a right to be involved, we insist that parents have a right to be involved,” the governor said before signing the bill into law.

But not all parents will see the impact equally.

The approximately 340,000 children attending charter schools do not appear to be affected by the law. That’s because it applies to the Florida Statutes chapter relating to district school board powers, a section from which charter schools are exempted.

Some people have suggested the measure will impact charters at least somewhat because the schools are subject to statutes dealing with student health and welfare. Beyond that, a paragraph dealing with notification of parents about changes in service refers to the “parents’ bill of rights” chapter, which does include charters. But the sponsor, Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, has stated it was not his intent to hold charters accountable to the new law.

The same holds true for HB 1467, a measure refining how schools select books for their shelves, which DeSantis signed into law on March 25. It amends a chapter of statute relating to the duties of a district school board, which does not apply to charters .

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Lawmakers did not leave charters completely unregulated, though. The schools must meet the new law requiring high school students to pass a financial literacy course to graduate, for instance.

Charters also are not exempted from portions of the pending HB 7 on race lessons in schools that alter state law on discrimination against students and employees in the K-20 public education system. They would, however, be exempt from sections of the bill that amend the statute on required instruction, which does not pertain to charters.

Lawmakers who carried these bills said that, although charters receive taxpayer funding and are regularly defined as public, they should not have to face the same restrictions as district schools.

Charters are “an experiment to see what kinds of schools are created and what the results are,” said Baxley. As such, he said, they need flexibility to make decisions about curriculum and other matters.

Beyond that, Baxley said, charter schools were not having the problems addressed by the latest legislation. I have added that the state does not directly oversee charter schools in the same way that it is responsible for district schools.

“The distinction in this is always quite clear,” Baxley said.

Senate Education Committee chairperson Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, sponsored the law on book selection. He also aimed to distinguish charter and district schools by their governance.

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District schools are run by elected school boards, funded by state and local taxes and subject to Department of Education review, Gruters said. In contrast, charters are run privately with unelected boards that have contractual relationships with the school districts, he explained. They do receive state money and, in 2019, lawmakers required school districts to share revenue from local-option tax referendums with charter schools, a mandate recently upheld by a state appeal court.

He questioned whether the state government should impose strict controls over private enterprises, even if they do receive state money.

Senate Education Committee vice chairperson Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens, said Republicans are “double talking.”

He contended their approach toward Florida public education undermines district schools as places not to be trusted, paving a path for charters and vouchers to supplant them. At the same time, he said, charters are largely free to do as they please — even if they disregard mandates the majority called for.

“Of course they’re not going to bother with the charter school system, because it’s a business model for them and many of their friends,” Jones said, arguing the only way out might be through elections.

Gruters said he would be open to further conversation about how laws apply to charters. Given the importance of the policies lawmakers just approved, he said, it’s “probably not a bad idea to look into that and see if we want to expand into that next year.”

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