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Senator pitches counteroffer on 'Schools of Hope'

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A Senate counteroffer on the House's controversial "Schools of Hope" proposal emerged Tuesday afternoon, shortly before it was attached to another piece of education legislation overwhelmingly approved by a budget subcommittee.

Less than three hours after it was filed, the Senate measure was added to a bill dealing with teacher bonuses (SB 1552), which then was unanimously passed by the Senate PreK-12 Education Subcommittee. The move set the stage for negotiations with the House on how to help students in public schools that persistently get poor grades on state report cards.

The House bill (HB 5105) would tap $200 million from the state budget for the "Schools of Hope" program, meant to encourage qualified charter schools to set up near academically troubled traditional schools. Because of its impact on the budget, the legislation is part of the House-Senate negotiations over state spending for the year that begins July 1.

But the language proposed Tuesday by Sen. David Simmons, an Altamonte Springs Republican who chairs the chamber's education budget panel, would focus first on earlier interventions for public schools that would fall short of calling in charter operators.

The bill would call on a district to give priority to one of three turnaround options, including an extra hour of learning time for students, giving principals more control or providing wraparound services, like health care and after-school programs. Schools that offer those services would be eligible for additional state funds.

Three other turnaround options --- including converting a traditional school into a charter school --- would still be available to districts.

"We're giving them the flexibility, but we're giving them the demand --- the demand that this gets solved," Simmons told the committee.

He also repeated something that he said Monday about the House proposal: that while Simmons believes it is a good idea, it's not enough on its own to address struggling public schools. The House has said that 115 schools could be eligible for the Schools of Hope program, though some of those are likely to move off the list before the next school year begins.

"I think it's impossible to ask charter schools to come in and take on the challenge by themselves right now without any other assistance," Simmons said.

The House proposal has also alarmed educators and some Democrats, who worry that it will continue a trend toward privatization of state schools. While charter schools are public schools, they are often managed by private for-profit or not-for-profit entities.

Several Democrats have pushed for a more comprehensive approach to the problem, including providing wraparound services for public schools.

"You cannot expect a student to come to school hungry, or with a toothache, or coming from an environment where they couldn't sleep peacefully the night before and expect them to be able to perform at a level that they are capable of doing," said Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat and head of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

Following the subcommittee meeting, Simmons told reporters that negotiations with the House would focus on looking for ways to combine the best elements of both chambers' proposals.

"Obviously, this is a compromise in and of itself right here, and we look forward to working with our colleagues in the House to reach a consensus," he said.