Urgent memo to Gov. Scott: Sign HB 7069, grow charter schools

Re-posting an op ed column from the Orlando Sentinel -- Urgent memo to Gov. Scott: Sign HB 7069, grow charter schools

By Cesar Grajales

In March, when the president visited St. Andrews Catholic School in Pine Hills and asked students, many of whom are enrolled through the state’s school-choice program, what their goals were, they replied, “College and heaven.” How’s that for life goals? All Florida students should be able to harbor similar aspirations. Thanks to the leadership of Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran and countless parents, students and school-choice advocates, more students could.

On May 8 the Florida Legislature passed a comprehensive education bill, House Bill 7069, which includes $140 million for “Schools of Hope,” a program that would encourage high-achieving charter schools to open in neighborhoods with chronically under-performing schools. The bill now sits on the governor’s desk, but its approval remains uncertain.

If the governor vetoes the bill, students in under-performing schools are likely to be negatively impacted. Right now, too many Florida students are trapped in schools similar to what the Tampa Bay Times referred to as “failure factories.” Day after day, these Florida students fall behind and have little hope of obtaining the education necessary to climb out of poverty and achieve the American dream. HB 7069 aims to free Florida’s neediest students from this unacceptable education status quo.

Schools of Hope would provide students across Florida a lifeline. The plan incentivizes charter schools with a history of performance, or “Hope Operators,” to open near chronically failing public schools. Even more encouraging, “students from persistently low-performing schools shall be exempt from any enrollment lottery.”

And these schools have the power to change the trajectory of a student’s life. Researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes confirm, “learning gains for charter school students are larger by significant amounts for black, Hispanic, low-income, and special education students in both math and reading.” And a RAND Corp. report found that for the locations where charter-high-school graduation and college-attendance rates were available — Chicago and Florida — “students who attended a charter high school appeared to benefit from an 8 to 10 percentage-point increase in the likelihood that they would enroll in college.”

Extending these opportunities to the Florida students who need them most would build upon our state’s successful record of school choice.

In 2001, Florida lawmakers created our Tax Credit Scholarship program, which gives families money to cover tuition at private schools. The successful program helped 92,000 students in the 2015-2016 school year. Then in 2016, legislators gave students even more choice in public schools by erasing invisible boundary lines to allow parents and students to choose the school that best fits their educational needs. The Schools of Hope legislation would continue this positive momentum.

The Florida House of Representatives deserves recognition for taking this crucial first step toward creating greater educational opportunity for our community. We applaud Reps. Chris Latvala and Manny Diaz for their leadership on this important issue.

We urge Gov. Rick Scott to sign this bill immediately to encourage the growth of charter schools in our state. We cannot allow Florida’s most at-risk students to continue slipping through the cracks.

Cesar Grajales is the Florida coalitions director for the LIBRE Initiative.