Statewide Florida Charter School Panel Teed Up

TALLAHASSEE — Florida education officials on Wednesday approved a rule that details how a new statewide commission can function as an “alternate venue” for approving charter schools.

The Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2022 signed off on the creation of a seven-member Charter School Review Commission to consider charter-school applications.

The State Board of Education, which will be responsible for choosing members of the commission, approved the rule Wednesday. Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. sponsored legislation that led to the commission’s creation while he served as a state senator.

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School boards, state colleges and universities can act as “sponsors” of charter schools, meaning they can authorize the schools to operate. Sponsors also have duties such as monitoring and reviewing charter schools’ performances, revenues and expenditures.

“Sometimes folks may ask, well, you have 67 school districts that can approve charter school applications in this state. And you also have … the college system can now sponsor charter schools in their service area, why do we need a statewide commission?” Diaz said during Wednesday’s meeting in Orlando.

Diaz pointed to “a lot of homegrown, successful charter operators” that run schools, as well as national charter companies that have been “attracted” to Florida to set up schools. He characterized the commission as a way to streamline the process of charter companies applying to open schools.

“If you have a successful operator that Florida is trying to bring into the state to operate schools in areas of need, under the old system, that operator would literally have to go possibly to 67 different sponsors to apply and go through that process. What this (rule) will do, it will allow this commission to take applications in multiple counties from an operator who’s coming into the state, or even an operator that’s within the state … and reduce the burden, the bureaucracy … to get these application in, reviewed, technically, and approved,” Diaz said.

Manny Diaz Jr.
Education Commissioner Manny Diaz Jr. backs a new statewide charter school review commission. Colin Hackley/File

School boards in some counties have clashed with charter-school operators about approvals and other issues. As an example, the Palm Beach County School Board this summer went to the Florida Supreme Court in a dispute about whether it is required to make retroactive payments to charter schools stemming from a 2018 referendum.

Under the new rule, if the commission approves a charter school application, the school board in the district where the charter school would be located would be required to serve as the sponsor of the school. The rule also establishes the process and timeline for the commission to act on charter applications.

A presentation given to the board Wednesday said the rule is designed to reduce the workload of school districts and increase school-choice options for students.

Nancy Lawther, who works with the Florida PTA, suggested that there should be “prior consultation” with the House speaker and the Senate president about who is appointed to the commission.

“As the proposed rule is currently written, per statute, members of an appointed body, not subject to the electoral process, are themselves charged with selecting members of another appointed body,” Lawther said. “We recommend further legislative involvement.”

State board member Ryan Petty pointed to a part of the rule that requires Senate confirmation for people tapped to serve on the commission.

“So there is legislative review already contemplated in the rule,” Petty said.

Meanwhile, Diaz said the commission could usher in more charter schools to areas of the state that need them.

Diaz pointed to South Florida as being among “areas of saturation” where there are many charter schools, but said there are other areas of the state that “do have a need for more choice.”

“And this would facilitate having that process be easier,” Diaz said.

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