From the Orange County Public School Board
Last week the Orange County School Board voted unanimously to join numerous other Florida school districts in petitioning the Courts to declare recently enacted House Bill 7069 unconstitutional. The decision to join the litigation was not made lightly, and was only made after concluding that Constitutional principles of a uniform, high quality education and local control of our neighborhood schools were worth fighting for.
I teach the citizenship merit badge to Boy Scouts. As part of that merit badge Scouts learn about different forms of government. They learn that in the United States we live in a constitutional democracy. They learn that this means that while we are a democracy in which we elect those who govern us, we are a constitutional democracy, meaning that our government is guided by a written constitution limiting the powers of government, protecting our civil rights and freedoms, and setting forth the principles by which we have chosen to govern ourselves.
Just as our national government must abide by the federal Constitution, so too must our State government abide by the State Constitution. We believe HB 7069, passed on the final day of the Legislative Session without the benefit of committee hearings or any semblance of an open, deliberative legislative process, clearly violates the Florida Constitution.
Article IX, Section 4 of the Florida Constitution provides for local control of public schools through locally elected school boards, stating, “The school board shall operate, control and supervise all free public schools within the school district.” Yet HB 7069 eliminates the power of local school boards to review and approve charter schools applications or to demand minimum standards of quality, competence, or taxpayer accountability from certain charter school applicants favored by the Legislature.
House Bill 7069 also diverts local property taxes earmarked for building and renovating neighborhood schools to charter school operators without regard to local school district finances, growth needs, or bond ratings. This is directly contrary to Article VII, Section 9, of the Florida Constitution, which gives local school districts the sole authority to levy ad valorem taxes for local purposes.
Perhaps most perversely, however, is that HB 7069 requires local schools districts to grant charters to charter school operators who employ uncertified teachers, a practice prohibited in traditional public schools. It is unfathomable why our legislators would require us to allow children to attend publicly funded charter schools employing teachers not certified to teach in Florida. Article IX, Section 1 of the Florida Constitution states that every child deserves a uniform, high quality education. We believe a high quality education begins, and ends, with a qualified, certified teacher in every classroom.
Make no mistake, we have many fine charter schools in Orange County of which we are justifiably proud. Yet we have seen the effect a poor quality charter school can have on a child’s education. It was just a few short years ago that we were forced to shut down a failing charter school where the Principal was taking a half million dollar salary, paid for by the taxpayers, while the children in the school were failing wholesale. Shortly before that we shut down another failing charter school in which only 8 percent of the children in the school could read at grade level, children whose reading scores declined dramatically after enrolling in the school. The true victims of these failures were the students and their parents who had entrusted the education of their children to those charter schools.
Because of these failures the Orange County School Board now demands minimum performance standards in our charter school contracts. For example, we now require every charter school earn at least a grade of C or better or risk losing their charter. And we demand that our charter schools comply with State testing requirements. These are locally negotiated requirements, yet under HB 7069 we will be compelled to grant a charter contract to certain legislatively favored applicants without any negotiation of terms and without even the most minimal performance standards.
I teach my Boy Scouts that some principles are worth fighting for. Our School Board has made it clear that we will withdraw our challenge if, and when, the Florida Legislature passes legislation curing the Constitutional defects of HB 7069. Until then, we intend to fight for the principles enshrined in the Florida Constitution, and for the right of every child to receive a uniform, high quality education.