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Senate panel clears charter schools expansion

A major proposal to expand charter schools sailed through the Senate Pre-K-12 Education Committee Wednesday, two days after also moving forward in a House panel.

Senate Bill 1546, backed by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, would make it significantly easier for charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately run -- to receive approval, increase enrollment and expand.

Under Thrasher's measure, charter schools that contract with universities and community colleges would have to be approved by school districts. Charters would also be eligible for a "high-performing" designation that would make it much more difficult for districts to deny operators' applications to grow or set up new shcools.

Thrasher quoted President Barack Obama praising charter schools as "laboratories of excellence."

"They're not a silver bullet, but they certainly have made a difference in driving student achievement in some areas of our state," Thrasher said, while acknowledging that "in some instances, we've had a couple that haven't been that good."

The committee, with two Republicans and one Democrat, passed the bill unanimously after hearing some concerns from Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, and from an official from the Seminole school district.

Montford made reference to a possible legal issue that could arise by letting universities sign off on new charters. "It just appears as though were forcing school districts to accept the decision made by a university unilaterally," he said.

On Monday in the House K-20 Innovation Subcommittee, a similar measure faced more heat and some opposition votes from Democrats.

In that chamber, the debate centered on granting high-performing charter school and charter-school operators a 15-year contract "to have some more certainty with their charter school," said Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, the bill's sponsor.

That creates a double standard, suggested Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, who referred to a bill passed earlier this session that did away with so-called teacher tenure.

"We reward a high-performing charter school with a long-term contract but we won't do the same for our teachers," Kriseman said.