A dramatically narrowed version of legislation aimed at helping charter schools get started and expand was approved by the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday.
Changes approved by the committee opened up broad differences between the bill (SB 1528) and its House counterpart, but appeared to clear the way for a bipartisan, 7-1 vote to move the legislation forward.
Originally, the bill would have required school districts and charter schools to use a standardized contract developed by the Florida Department of Education. Also, it would have removed some limits on the ability of charter operators whose schools do well on state report cards to establish new schools, though it would have restricted where those new facilities could be located.
The new Senate version would instead require the DOE to forward any case where negotiations between a charter operator and a district are deadlocked to an administrative law judge. The judge would have 30 days to rule on the case.
Under the amendment, charter schools would also only be allowed to expel students for violations of the schools' codes of conduct -- addressing concerns by Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, that some of the schools might be trying to get rid of students who struggle academically.
Supporters of the legislation say districts sometimes drag their feet to try to delay or prevent the opening of charter schools.
"I believe the Senate is pretty much in agreement that we liked an approach that accommodated the charter schools' concern -- which is a very legitimate concern -- but we had a different solution to that problem," said Senate Education Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz.
He also said the standardized charter-school agreement, which DOE was required to craft under a bill that was approved last year, would still be useful as "a template" for judges to consider.
The compromise was backed at Tuesday's meeting by groups that have supported the charter-school legislation, as well as organizations that had been more skeptical of the proposal.
"We are very pleased to see the ... amendment, and it has addressed many of the concerns that we came with prior to this," said Debbie Harrison-Rumberger of the League of Women Voters.
But the sponsor of the House bill (HB 7083) -- which passed the House Education Appropriations Subcommittee on a party-line vote Monday -- said he doesn't believe the new Senate version would address the issue.
"I don't think that language does enough to create a sense of urgency to come to an agreement," said Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah.
Diaz's bill still has to clear the House Education Committee before heading to the floor; the Senate bill has two more stops.