The charter war on school board authority

MANNY DIAZ SMUG

Something nasty is going on in the 2016 Florida Legislature.  “Reform” minded politicians; aided by wealthy charter lobbyists, the Koch Brothers, voucher proponents and Jeb’s Foundations have declared war on the constitutional authority of school Boards. Unable to stomach any opposing view, they’d rather write and pass legislation to rig the game than play within the parameters of the Florida Constitution.

Floridians will not accept an over-arching bill designed to destroy school board authority and privatize schools, so politicians break the concept down to a handful of seemingly unrelated bills in exchange for PAC cash.

The writing has been on the wall for a long time. For years Jeb Bush has referred to school boards as, “13,000 government-run, unionized, politicized monopolies, who trap good teachers, administrators and struggling students in a system that nobody can escape.”

Who really thinks our public education system is something “nobody can escape?” Jeb’s hype is about instilling panic and chaos in order to force passage of extreme legislation. Many of the gateway concepts for privatizing public schools are found in these bills: 

SB 669/SB 886 Sprowls/Benacquisto Universal Public School Choice/Open Enrollment This is the most dangerous public education bill of the 2016 session.  It seeks to destroy the constitutional authority of elected school boards over the state’s 67 contiguous school districts.  This bill allows students to enroll in any public school in the state that has capacity for up to six years, potentially displacing zoned students and exposing the bill’s true intent to disrupt district authority over enrollment, planning and budgeting. Transfer students and their parents will benefit from locally raised tax dollars meant to benefit local residents, upending how public education is ultimately overseen and funded. Since transportation is not provided, the advantage of open enrollment benefits students with financial means the most.  According to committee appearance cards, the only groups in favor of this bill are:  Florida Coalition of School Board Members (education “reform” group), Foundation for Florida’s Future, Associated Builders and Contractors, Florida Family Policy Council, Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.  STATUS: HB 669 has passed the House.  SB 886 passed two committees in the Senate and is now in Appropriations.  The two bills are very different at this point, if they are not reconciled, HB 669 could be amended in its entirety on a “train” bill such as the budget.

HB 873 Education Funding/forcing districts to share publicly raised capital outlay with for-profit charters by Reps Fresen, Diaz & Spano – Reduces the state’s obligation to fund charter capital projects from 1/15th to 1/40th of the cost of a student station. This bill forces districts to make up the difference by sharing local voter-approved millage monies meant to build and improve district schools. In presenting this bill in committee Rep. Fresen was deliberately misleading about the difference between funding student stations and budgeting for large structures such as libraries, automotive labs and gymnasiums. Armed with sketchy “facts,” Fresen accused districts of wild overspending and irresponsibility regarding capital projects. The Florida legislature has cut public education funding by $4 billion dollars in recent years.  Districts now raise more funding as a local taxing authority than the state provides. These taxes are the only funds available to districts for capital improvements. It’s concerning that this bill expects districts to share large portions of these limited funds with for-profit entities who often double dip from the public trough through complex real estate rental pass-through schemes. HB 873 caps the cost of a student station and penalizes districts who exceed that cost by denying them three years of PECO Capital outlay funds. At present it is not against the law for district who wishes to pay more for a specialty station as long as locally raised taxes were used. The concept is meant to place a hardship on districts that must carefully plan for growth, while charters are allowed unmitigated expansion without justification. Fresen hijacked the original intent of HB 873 to benefit for-profit charter operators. Fresen, who is eyeing a Senate run, works for Civica, an architectural firm who specializes in designing charter schools. He is the brother-in-law of Fernando Zulueta, owner of Academica, the state’s largest charter school developer.  The Senate has not filed its response to HB 873, which literally flew through its committee assignments and is headed for a floor vote in the House.  According to committee appearance cards, the only groups in favor of this bill are:  Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, Koch Brothers/Americans for Prosperity and Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future. STATUS: CS/HB 873 reported out of the Education Committee. Sen. Gaetz outlined a very different vision and said it would be configured into a bill this week.

2016 Proposed House & Senate Budget/Dispersing capital outlay PECO dollars to district schools vs charters – Legislators have been pushing to allocate charters unfair portions of capital funds for years. The House budgeted $90 million for 650 charter schools, that’s $139,461 per school. Compare that to $50 million for 4,279 public schools, that’s $11,684 per school. The Senate budget allocates zero to charters and $50 million to public schools, setting up an ideal horse trading scenario. Since 2011, charters have received $326 million in building and maintenance funds while public schools received $109 million. STATUS: Budget conference is expected to begin this week.

HB 1155/SB 1426 Rep. Eisnaugle/Sen. Stargel  Targets Florida School Boards Association by preventing them from using dues and other monies to fund litigation against the state.  This is a hostile payback bill directed at the Florida School Boards Association (FSBA) for joining others to sue the state over the legality of using diverted public funds for private school vouchers.  The bill unfairly bans the organization from accessing dues and other monies to fund litigation to defend the constitutional authority of its duly elected members. According to committee appearance cards, the groups in favor of this bill are the Koch Brothers/Americans for Prosperity, Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future and the Betsy DeVos/John Kirtley pro-voucher super PAC, the Florida Federation for Children. STATUS: HB 1155 passed the full house.  SB 1426 has passed all committees of reference and is now on the Senate Calendar.

HJR 759/SJR 976 State charter authorizer by Diaz/Stargel Statewide Charter School AuthorizerThis is model legislation produced by the National Alliance of Public Charter Schools, whose board members include Jeb Bush, Jr. and Fernando Zulueta, president of charter giant Academica and employer of Rep. Diaz.   The bill creates an appointed state authorizing entity for the express purpose of allowing charter applicants to bypass the constitutional authority of duly elected school boards. The “choice” seems clear. What charter is going to apply to a school board who must act for the greater good of the community when they can go the appointed state charter authorizer for an easy approval?  This amendment requires a 60% approval in both chambers to be placed on the November ballot, where it will need 60% of the vote to alter Florida’s constitution.  According to committee appearance cards, the groups in favor of this bill are: Florida Coalition of School Board Members (education “reform” group), Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, Foundation for Florida’s Future, Florida Virtual School, Pipin Academies and the Florida League of Cities. STATUS: HJR 759 is on second reading calendar. SJR 976 was referred to the Education PreK-12 Committee and was temporarily postponed.

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