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FL considering ways to lure out-of-state charter school operators

Florida might find itself with more KIPP, YES Prep and RocketShip Education charter schools if a legislative proposal makes its way through the 2014 session.

Rep. George Moraitis
Rep. George Moraitis

The House Choice & Innovation Subcommittee has introduced a draft bill for the upcoming session to align charter school applications with the state’s new standard charter contracts (which passed last session). But the bill also includes a provision (page 27) that could give some out-of-state operators a coveted designation that would make it easier for them to expand in Florida.

The “high-performing” designation is reserved for charter school operators who have established a successful record in the Sunshine State. It’s a status approved by the state Board of Education, and one that comes with benefits such as money-saving multi-year contracts, additional student capacity and limited restrictions on opening more schools.

It’s not clear, yet, what criteria the out-of-state networks might have to meet in order to earn the designation, and how it would differ from the requirements for in-state networks. But Florida education leaders have told lawmakers they need the incentives. And some lawmakers say it’s a step toward attracting some of the country’s most successful charter school outfits to some of Florida’s poorest neighborhoods.

“We’re trying to induce people to come into the state to do business,’’ Rep. George Moraitis, a Republican member of the subcommittee, told redefinED. “This would be for excellent operators.’’

For the past three years, the state has focused on reeling in renowned operators. A few, such as The Seed Foundation and KIPP, set up shop. But Florida can and should do more, said State Board of Education Chairman Gary Chartrand.

“It takes an effort on a lot of fronts,’’ said Chartrand, who helped raise $9 million to bring a KIPP elementary school to Jacksonville and donated $1 million toward the network’s middle school in the same city.

Gary Chartrand

Florida appears to be making progress.

In 2011, the Florida Department of Education created the Charter School Growth Fund, a reservoir made up of $20 million in federal Race to the Top dollars and $10 million in private donations. Charter school operators compete for the grant dollars to help fund startup costs and other needs.

So far, the effort has resulted in a handful of new homegrown charter schools, including some with ties to nationally recognized chains. These schools show promise, but, without a track record, they’re a bit of a gamble for the state.

Last summer, Chartrand helped spearhead a group that identified roadblocks for major charter operators to come to Florida – low per-student funding, limited access to capital outlay dollars and a complicated, time-consuming authorization process – and sought to find solutions. Well-known philanthropists like the Walton Family Foundation and heavy hitters from the charter world like Rocketship Education, a high-performing K-5 charter system based in California, attended the meeting, as did superintendents from the state’s largest districts and DOE officials.

Since then, the state has developed a standard charter school contract to streamline the approval process and lobbied lawmakers for more incentives, like fast-tracking applications.

Rocketship, meanwhile, has received a $100,000 growth fund grant. Leaders from the charter network have met with Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, and city and community leaders, to consider the district as a site for one of eight possible Rocketship schools in Florida.

No word, yet, on how the search is going or whether the latest effort from lawmakers will make it easier. Rocketship officials have said it could take years to happen, if at all.

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BY Sherri Ackerman

Sherri Ackerman is the former associate editor of redefinED. She is a former correspondent for the Tampa Bay Times and reporter for The Tampa Tribune, writing about everything from cops and courts to social services and education. She grew up in Indiana and moved to Tampa as a teenager, graduating from Brandon High School and, later, from the University of South Florida with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications/news editing. Sherri passed away in March 2016.