Legislators robbing public schools to pay privately run charters

PAULA DOCKERY

by: Paula Dockery, 2.25.16|Tampa Tribune

The Florida Legislature, particularly the House, is hell-bent on pushing its charter school facility funding and expansion agenda at the expense of the state’s traditional public schools.

Let me be perfectly clear. I don’t oppose charter schools. In fact, I’ve been very supportive of them. While in the Legislature I voted for legislation that promoted choice within the public school system, such as magnet schools, charter school conversions and career academies.

One of the initial selling points of charter schools was that they could operate less expensively. Start-up charter schools boasted that they could provide space to meet our growing student population in overcrowded schools. They rented inexpensive space in empty strip malls and storefronts, saving taxpayers by delaying the need to expand existing schools or to build new ones.

The savings once promised was replaced by requests for more funding.

 There are good charter schools and bad ones — same as traditional public schools. The difference is that we have less control over charter schools, even though we fund them. When a charter school closes its doors — sometimes with no notice — our traditional public schools have to absorb the students who find themselves suddenly without a school.

What’s the legislative response to this lack of accountability for the growing number of charter schools? The response — particularly in the House—is more money and more autonomy.

This year there are several bills — along with budget recommendations — that benefit charter schools at the expense of our traditional public schools.

To start, the House proposes capital outlay funding of $90 million for charter schools and only $50 million for the rest of Florida’s traditional public schools. The Senate — at least for now — recommends the same $50 million for our traditional schools but zero for charters.

In addition to lopsided funding, state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, wants to significantly change how public schools use tax dollars to fund construction projects. In House Bill 873, he reins in what school districts can spend on capital projects while making it easier for charter schools to get funding.

The bill requires locally elected school districts to give charter schools a share of their local property tax dollars while also lowering the charters’ eligibility requirements, making it easier for more to qualify.

To be clear: The state is dictating not only how any state dollars are used but also how local tax dollars are used. Wouldn’t the Legislature be incensed and screaming about states’ rights if the federal government did the same to them?

A few interesting points to ponder.

♦  Charter schools are privately managed but publicly funded.

♦  There are 251,000 Florida students in charter schools and 2.7 million in district-run schools.

♦  There are 650 charter schools and more than 3,600 traditional public schools.

♦  The Legislature has funded $326 million for charter school facilities and $109 million for traditional public schools over the past five years.

♦  Since 2000, charter schools have received $760 million from state taxes for facility funding. The Associated Press found that $70 million of that has gone to charter schools that have closed.

♦  Legislators pushing the bills and funding have close ties to charter schools, creating potential conflicts of interest.

Since Florida’s school districts were starved for capital funding in the 2011-12, 2012-13 and 2013-14 school years, they had to come up with local revenue sources — including property taxes, local sales tax and bonding — to fix their deteriorating buildings. Now the Legislature wants them to share those dollars too.

But wait, there’s more.

House Joint Resolution 759 by state Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Senate Joint Resolution 976 by state Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot creating a state-appointed board that could authorize, operate and control Florida’s charter schools. Currently that authority belongs to locally elected school boards, as charters are considered public schools.

Perhaps this is where some term-limited legislators hope to land. No doubt it will carry an attractive salary and benefits package.

Read entire article here.

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