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House panel considers controversial charter-school space sharing

A House panel is pushing forward with big changes to the state's charter school law.

A draft bill, released this week by the House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee, would require charter school governing boards and school district to use a new model contract. It would also enable the state Department of Education to perform technical reviews of charter school applications.

The draft received mostly positive feedback during a subcommittee meeting Thursday morning.

But Rep. Kionne McGhee raised concerns the bill might spark a legal challenge. The Miami Democrat noted that state law gives school districts the authority to approve new charter schools –- not the Department of Education.

“I’m wondering if a portion of this particular bill would set us up on a constitutional collision course and we would find ourselves in the court system for overstepping our boundaries,” McGhee said.

Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bileca, R-Miami, was not concerned. He stressed that the Department of Education review would be non-binding.

“It is not stripping authorization power,” Bileca said. “It is just issuing an opinion and a review.”

The House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee may also revive a proposal that would require school districts to share underutilized school facilities with charter schools.

Bileca said language was being drafted that “incentivizes the district to provide the facilities, but also ensures that the charters are wise stewards of those facilities.”

“In the end, if we can make those facilities available to provide quality education to students in the district, then they are being utilized in the way they were intended,” Bileca said. “An empty asset or an underutilized asset serves no one.”

Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, included similar language in a sweeping charter school proposal last year. But school districts raised concerns, prompting Moraitis to kill the provision at the last minute.

Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Miami, said it was time to have the conversation again.

“There’s a lot underutilized space, particularly in urban districts because of the growth patterns,” Diaz said. “The taxpayers are paying for that space to be used as a school. We’re supposed to be serving kids.”

The House Choice and Innovation Subcommittee is taking a different approach to charter school legislation than last year. Rather than filing a committee bill, Bileca has released a draft version of the proposal during committee weeks, and is holding a series of workshops on the topic.

“We wanted to bring it up early so we would put it on the table and get the discussion going,” Bileca said.

Will the approach help ease tensions between charter schools and school districts? The next few weeks will tell.