By Andrew Marra Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
July 30, 2015|
Palm Beach County’s schools chief wants permission from state lawmakers to convert the county’s public school system into a “charter school district,” a designation that could let him end-run state rules and drastically reorganize schools’ schedules, class sizes and instruction time.
Superintendent Robert Avossa’s proposal would require approval from state lawmakers and the support of the county’s School Board. If granted, he said the extra freedom would allow the county’s traditional public schools to better compete with charter schools, which have more flexibility under state law and are attracting thousands of new students each year.
“If we’re going to compete with charter schools, then I think as a district we need to be given the same level of autonomy,” he told School Board members Wednesday.
Avossa unveiled his proposal at Wednesday’s School Board meeting, drawing on his experience in Georgia where he oversaw Fulton County’s conversion into a charter school district.
Despite its shorthand name, the proposal does not entail converting traditional schools into charter schools. Instead, Avossa’s proposal would free district-run schools from some of the regulations that he said make it difficult for them to tailor their educational offerings to students’ particular needs.
Avossa called Florida’s reams of public school regulations well-intended but said they are “creating a maze of barriers” that impede the schools’ ability “to be nimble and react to what the public demands.”
“A one-size-fits-all approach does not work,” he said.
It’s not clear that state lawmakers will take up Avossa’s proposal. For years, Florida had a more narrow provision in place to let county school systems, including Palm Beach County’s, obtain “charter school district” status and avoid certain state regulations. But the program eventually was allowed to expire.
A key state lawmaker expressed skepticism about Avossa’s plan Thursday, saying that state law already permits school systems to get around many regulations by declaring certain schools “schools of innovation.”
“What’s in the existing statute that doesn’t allow you to do those things already?” asked state Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, chairman of the Senate’s education committee and a charter school operator. “When superintendents ask those questions and we probe a little bit, they’re often not asking for what they pretend to be asking for.”
Avossa said one of the greatest benefits of converting to charter school status would be freedom from state rules that require students to spend a minimum number of hours taking certain classes , even if they already have mastered the subject.
Getting around those requirements could let students spend less time on subjects they already know and more time on ones they need more help with, he said.
“We’re essentially (doing) what? Holding back the most advanced kids,” he said.
In Fulton County, Avossa used charter school district status to set up individual boards of directors at each district-run school.
Those boards, composed of parents, teachers and business leaders, had broad authority to decide things like the schools’ schedules and course offerings. Some chose to extend the school year, while others kept the school day running longer into the afternoon.
School Board members said they liked the idea of asking the Legislature for greater flexibility, saying it would help them create more attractive schooling options.
Board members have worried for years about the steady exodus of students to charter schools. Nearly one in nine of the school system’s 186,000 students is expected to attend a charter school next year.
“Just tell them we want a level playing field,” School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri said. “They love charter schools in Tallahassee, so tell them we want to be charter schools.”
Board member Mike Murgio, a former charter school principal, said traditional schools “should operate under the same rules as any charter school can.”
“You get the money and you do what you know is best for your children and meet their needs,” he said.
Board member Karen Brill said she was generally supportive but expressed caution, saying that she needed more information about the proposal before endorsing it.
“There’s a lot of questions out there that people have,” she said.
School district officials say they would bring back a more detailed plan to board members before they finalize their legislative agenda next month.
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