By Jessica Bakeman
04/14/2017 05:20 AM EDT
TALLAHASSEE — One of House Speaker Richard Corcoran’s top priorities, HB 5105, which aims to attract charter schools to communities where traditional public schools are failing, was approved Thursday by his chamber.
The complex, 34-page bill will now be part of budget negotiations with the Senate.
Here’s a comprehensive look at what’s in it:
Traditional public school turnaround
Florida law compels schools that consistently earn D or F ratings under the state’s A-to-F school grading system to implement mandatory turnaround plans, requirements called “differentiated accountability.” HB 5105 would direct struggling schools to begin turnaround efforts sooner and eliminate some options available to districts, making it more likely they would choose to convert schools into charters or bring in outside entities such as charter operators to run the schools.
Under current law, when a school earns an F, the district must design a plan for rapidly improving performance and get it approved by the state Board of Education. The district may choose to manage its own overhaul of the school’s operations, close the school, convert it to a charter school, hire an external operator to run the school or design a hybrid plan combining two or more of the options. The school gets one year to plan and two years to implement, and if its grade hasn’t improved, the district must choose a different turnaround option and try again. Schools that earn three consecutive Ds must implement a district-managed turnaround plan.
The bill would make more schools subject to “differentiated accountability” and speed up the process. If a school is rated D or F for one year, the district would have to submit a plan for how it would turn around the school. After the plan was approved, the district would implement it for the rest of that school year and then one full school year. The board could allow for another year if it believes it is likely the school will improve to a C after the first full year.
If a school earned scores below a C for three consecutive years, the district would be required to choose one of the following options: reassign students to other schools and monitor their progress, bring in an outside operator to run the school or close the school and reopen it as a charter school. If the school doesn’t improve to C after two years of implementation, the district would be forced to choose a different option.
Also under the bill, schools that earn a D or F for one year would have to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with local unions specifying the “selection, placement and expectations of teachers and principals.”
Eligibility for charter operators
The bill’s main focus is creating a system under which charter school operators would be allowed and encouraged to open schools near traditional public schools that are failing.
Under the bill, eligible charter school operators — called “hope operators” — would be 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that already operate three or more charters in the U.S. serving low-income students in kindergarten through 12th grades.
Operators would be able to qualify by meeting the following criteria: students in their existing schools perform better than average in the districts and states in which they operate; 80 percent of more of their existing students go on to attend college, if that data is available; 70 percent or more of their existing students qualify for free or reduced price lunch; they are in good standing with the charter authorizers in the states where they operate; they have clean financial audits; and any other requirements determined by the state board.
Another way they can qualify is if they have received certain federal or private grants within three years prior to seeking “hope operator” status. The awards are Grants for Replication and Expansion of High-Quality Charter Schools from the U.S. Department of Education (list of recipients here) or and national and regional grants from the nonprofit Charter School Growth Fund (list of recipients here).
Operators are also eligible if they’re chosen by districts as part of the state-mandated turnaround plans.
The “hope operator” designation lasts for five years, and renewal is based on its academic and financial performance since it achieved the status.
Establishing a ‘school of hope’
Once a nonprofit is designated a “hope operator,” it can submit a notice of intent to a school district that includes its plan to open a “school of hope.” The school must serve students from one or more “persistently low-performing schools;” be located in the attendance zone or within a five-mile radius of a “persistently low-performing school,” whichever is greater; and be eligible for federal Title I funding.
A “persistently low-performing school” is one “that has been subject to a differentiated matrix of intervention and support strategies,” meaning state-mandated turnaround, for more than three years. It could also be a school that closed within two years of the operator submitting a notice of intent. The state board will publish a list of “persistently low-performing schools” annually. The House has already circulated a list of 115 schools that would currently meet those standards.
The notice of intent would have to include an academic and financial plan, goals for increasing the achievement of kids from low-income families, a community outreach plan, an explanation of which grade levels and how many students the school would serve, its proposed location, a staffing plan and information about the operator’s history of success with similar student demographics.
The district would then have 60 days to hash out a performance-based agreement with the operator. If the agreement is not reached in that time frame, the amount of money the district typically collects in administrative fees from all of the charter schools it oversees would be reduced. Once the contract is final, the district could once again collect the full amount of administrative fees but it could not recoup the lost revenue. Charters pay districts fees to cover the costs of administrative services they provide.
The state board could enter its own agreement with an operator if a district doesn’t comply.
The performance-based agreements would have to include information about how operators would choose which students could attend a “school of hope,” such as by conducting “transparent” lotteries. Students from “persistently low-performing schools” would be exempt from participating in lotteries.
Also, the agreement would have to include a description of students’ baseline performance, the operator’s goals for improving performance and how it would measure performance as well as a plan for how the operator would gather parent input.
There would be provisions specifying the grounds for terminating the agreement, including if the operator doesn’t meet the agreed-upon performance standards or mismanages the school’s finances.
The initial term of the agreement would be five years. If the operator sought renewal of the agreement, it would have to be renewed unless the operator did not meet student performance goals or mismanaged the school’s finances.
Operators and districts would be required to use standard notices of intent and performance-based agreements adopted by the state board “to eliminate regulatory and bureaucratic barriers that delay access to high quality schools for students in persistently low-performing schools,” according to the bill.
The state board would be empowered to resolve disputes that arise between districts and operators over the agreements. The state education commissioner would appoint a special magistrate, who would have subpoena power, hold hearings and make a recommendation within five days after the final hearing. The commissioner would then accept or reject the recommendation at the state board’s next regularly scheduled meeting that’s between seven and 30 days later. The commissioner’s decision would be able to be appealed to the First District Court of Appeal. If the charter operator prevailed, it would be allowed to recover attorneys’ fees.
Funding ‘schools of hope’
Upon request from the operator, it could be designated a “local education agency,” which means its schools’ shares of federal funds, including Title I funds, would come to the schools more directly rather than first flowing through districts. If operators choose to become “local education agencies,” students in their schools would not be counted as a part of their districts’ grades.
The schools would receive per-pupil state and local funding the same way other charter schools do. They would also be subject to the same eligibility requirements for state capital funding as other charter schools, except they would not be allowed to use the dollars to buy property for the construction of facilities, because that’s provided for in a different part of the bill.
Schools would have access to a $200 million pot of state funding for the following uses: providing professional development; hiring and paying teachers, school leaders and specialized support personnel for services beyond the school day or year; acquiring supplies, equipment and educational materials; one-time startup costs for transportation; and community engagement activities, which could include student and staff recruitment.
Any money not appropriated by June 30 of a given year would carry forward for up to five years.
If a school closes, any leftover funds and any equipment or property purchased would revert to state ownership.
If operators borrow money for “schools of hope” from a source other than the state or a district, then neither the state nor the district would be liable for repayment of principal or interest.
Housing ‘schools of hope’
The bill creates a revolving loan program for the schools’ startup capital costs. The loans could cover up to 25 percent of the cost of a project. The total cost of a project could not exceed 80 percent of the state’s established per-student limits for construction spending.
The loan fund would include money appropriated by the Legislature as well as dollars received from loan repayments and interest. The funding would carry forward for up to five years. The state Department of Education would administer the loan program or contract with a third party that would do so.
The department would be required to post on its website a list of projects that have received loans, including the costs, statuses and geographic distribution of the projects as well as the educational outcomes of the students enrolled in the benefiting schools.
“Hope operators” would be able to locate in existing public school buildings through agreements with districts, paying no more than $600 per student. The districts would have to agree to maintain the buildings to the same standards they maintain other buildings.
The department would be required to annually provide a list of “underused, vacant, or surplus facilities owned or operated” by school districts.
The schools could also locate in public universities and colleges, libraries, museums, performing arts centers, churches or other facilities.
Charters would be exempt from property taxes and certain fees and wouldn’t have to comply with the state’s more stringent building code for schools.
Regulatory flexibility for ‘schools of hope’
“Schools of hope” would be exempt from a broad array of state education laws and local school board policies but must follow those dealing with assessments and school grading, graduation requirements, services for students with disabilities, civil rights discrimination protections and student health, safety and welfare. The school would also be subject to public meetings and records laws.
The schools would be allowed to comply with a 2002 constitutional amendment placing limits on class sizes by calculating class size as a school-wide average.
Teachers and administrators may be exempt from state certification requirements as long as they aren’t disqualified for employment because of certain felony convictions. Employees would have to adhere to state ethics laws.
The schools may operate as public or private employers. If they are public, their employees would be compelled to enroll in the Florida Retirement System.
The bill doesn’t specifically require the schools to offer transportation, but it says, “transportation may not be a barrier to equal access for all students residing within reasonable distance of the school.” “Hope operators” would be able to enter into agreements with districts, private providers or students’ parents for transportation.
School districts would not take on any civil liability for “schools of hope.”