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Public School Districts Want Charters' Flexibility

October 19, 2011 - 6:00pm

Public schools have enviously watched the rapid rise of charter schools in Florida, with over 500 charter schools statewide and dozens more poised for approval.

The main complaint is that charters have been able to operate with more flexibility than school districts. For instance, charters can use longer school hours, don't have to bargain with unions on teacher pay and have relaxed standards on class-size requirements.

Now, school districts have decided they want the same flexibility as charters and are launching a lobbying campaign in the Legislature to relax some public school regulations.

Armed with a sample bill, Juhan Mixon, a lobbyist for several school districts, told a Senate panel Thursday to consider a major rewrite of Florida's school policies to make some schools more in line with the freedom charter schools enjoy.

If granted the same flexibility of private charters, district-run charters may choose to use larger classrooms than allowed in traditional public schools, set longer school days and provide instruction in converted shopping centers or grocery stores.

The schools would also have more freedom over how their money is spent, freeing up dollars for curriculum, technology improvements and instruction.

Already, several districts within Florida are exploring the idea of operating their own district-run charters.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, said public school districts are most interested in using the same class-size standards as charters. For charters, class-size requirements become based on school averages rather than individual classes.

"Schools would love to have the flexibility of class size that charter schools have," Montford said.

Earlier this year, the Legislature did approve a new law that exempts more classes from the class-size caps approved by voters in 2002. But school districts are pressing for even more leniency under the law.

Another suggestion Mixon pushed for is allowing schools to renovate commercial buildings for classes such as science labs, secondary music rooms, computer labs and gymnasiums that are not used full-time by students.

Mixon called the strict building codes that schools must adhere to "the Cadillac of building codes." It is designed to protect the safety of children, and charters are largely exempt. As a result, some charter schools operate out of renovated shopping centers, or other commercial buildings.

"We need to look at all the regulations we've got and say which ones are not needed," Mixon said.

But Montford said few schools will want to escape the strict building codes.

"There are some concerns about students attending schools in facilities that do not meet the strict building codes," Montford said. "I'm not sure you would find too many school districts taking advantage of that."

Mixon's pitch appeared well-received by Sen. David Simmons, R-Maitland, the head of the Senate Budget Subcommittee on PreK-12 Appropriations, who agreed the idea is "certainly worth looking at."

"We have learned that school districts can achieve more when they are given more flexibility in certain ways," Simmons said. "We are trying to make sure we demand the accountability, so flexibility is not a code word for regression." Simmons said burdensome regulations for schools "need to be addressed."

Schools argue they are being judged by student performance, just as charters are, so they should be working with the same playbook. Charters are given an unfair advantage, public schools argue.

"All school districts have requested is a level playing field," said Montford, who is also the head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents. "Same rules, some regulations, some level of transparency."

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