The fact that the House budget committee approved a charter school bill Thursday isn’t nearly as interesting as the debate that took place.
Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, said his bill is designed to increase accountability for charter schools – since they are using public dollars – and increase flexibility and growth.
Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, suggested a small change to an amendment that would require districts to turn former classrooms over to a charter school if requested. Jones wanted district schools to be able to continue using the buildings — if they were storing textbooks there, for instance — even if it was for a purpose other than teaching students.
The great debate over Jones’ proposal epitomizes the perceived rift between Democrat and Republican views of education.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, started it with this sentence: “There’s an underlying bias here that really concerns me.”
Here’s a portion of the exchange:
“We’re hearing language like ‘giving buildings away.’ We’re hearing language like ‘not a public school.’ These are public schools, and it’s just an absolute bias against an alternative way of managing schools that keeps treating it as not part of our family.
These are public schools. These are uses that are legitimate. These are creating real alternatives for ways to turn around situations. I’ve seen triple F’s, quadruple F’s, five F’s (referring to failing schools) – something has to change in those communities.
So I object to this amendment to the amendment because it is expressing that – if there’s any way, any way at all, we can keep a charter school from managing that school, then let’s block it.
That bothers me that we still have that bias when we’ve seen so much success — sometimes choosing a different alternative and offering a different way to manage our public schools that’s beneficial to those students. We serve all the students of our community, and there’s no reason to treat that with bias.
If you’ve got empty schools sitting around, and we’ve got charter schools ready to go to work and meet the needs of those students that want those charter schools and those communities that chose those charter schools, I think we need to open up and understand they’re all our children, and we need to respond to that and quit being so parochial here.”
Baxley’s comments brought a lot of response from members, mostly Democrats.
Rep. Reggie Fullwood, D-Jacksonville–
“I do want to dispel the comments about this bias. I think a lot of us on this side of the aisle are very involved in charter schools and support charter schools.
A lot of us are on advisory committees or boards of charter schools and volunteer. I’m in an organization that goes into a charter school every week and volunteers and mentors a bunch of kids.
So I think to say that there’s a bias I think is unfounded.”
Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee–
“To have charter schools take control of publicly used assets, I believe, is the wrong public policy for this Legislature to consider.”
Rep. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale–
“When we talked about a bias against charter schools, I think that there are those of us who would say a simple amendment that the bill sponsor agreed to – the fact that we would have to debate it to this extent means that there may be a bias against public schools. And that’s probably some underlying concern that most of us have.
When you have to debate this much on an amendment that’s this little, it means there are underlying concepts. Maybe there is some thought that we don’t really want to support public schools if we can’t accept this minor amendment. Certainly that doesn’t bode well for the actual bill itself.
“I am not against charter schools. You’re looking at a member of a board of a charter school.
I support charter schools. I believe that there are charter schools that are doing great things.
I believe in public schools, and I believe that school districts have a responsibility, and we need to allow them to do the job that they are there to do. And they have assets, and they are responsible for those assets. So I would ask you to support this amendment.”
Jones’ amendment was rejected along party lines.
The committee approved the bill — again along party lines — and it now moves on to the House Education Committee, likely the last stop before it goes to the House floor.