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Politics

Attacked From Left, Charter Schools Fight for Right to Funding

February 20, 2012 - 6:00pm

The perennial push to funnel construction funds to charter schools is running into another brick wall of political opposition erected by school districts and a liberal advocacy group.

Though charter schools serve an expanding enrollment of more than 160,000 Florida students at nearly 500 campuses across the state, these free public schools receive little or no capital funding.

Senate Bill 1852, authored by state Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, seeks to change that by requiring local school districts to share their construction and maintenance money on a proportional basis with charters.

Without a revenue-sharing agreement, Wise says charters -- which are growing at a rate of roughly 10 percent annually -- are being shortchanged.

Were still not giving the right amount of money per student, Wise observed.

But, as in previous years, school districts have fought any attempt at equity, complaining that they cannot spare any capital funds.

Officials from Broward and Miami-Dade counties estimated their school systems would "lose" a combined $65 million a year to charters if SB 1852 were enacted.

Progress Florida, a liberal advocacy group, jumped in to turn up the political rhetoric this session.

"Governor [Rick] Scott's extremist allies in the Legislature once again [are] working to take away badly needed funds from Florida's public schools," writes Mark Ferullo, Progress Florida chairman.

Having watered down House Bill 903, a companion measure by Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, Ferullo's group is circulating a petition targeting SB 1852, which it dubs "the Public Schools Deconstruction Act."

Charter providers reject the label and the rationale.

"The money should follow the child," says Lynn Norman-Teck of the Florida Consortium of Charter Schools.

"There is no reason that a child should be funded at a different level than at another public school option, whether it be a magnet or a district school."

Yet a national study found that Florida's charter schools receive, on average, 25.1 percent less per-pupil funding than their traditional district counterparts.

Adding fuel to the fire, the Ball State University report discovered that "local districts reduce charter school reimbursements from local funds, including capital and debt service funds."

The fiscal disparity persists even though state law directs that charters be funded "the same as" other public schools.

Because Florida does not recognize charters as "Local Education Agencies" for the purpose of funding, the Ball State study said charters cannot always access state and federal program funds directly. Instead, they must rely on district distributions -- which may or may not be forthcoming.

Norman-Teck and charter operators argue that, contrary to simplistic reportage in the mainstream media, public-education funds are not "district money -- they're public funds."

"You have to respect the [charter school] child and the child's parent who contributes these funds as taxpayers," Norman-Teck asserts.

Out of Florida's 67 counties, all but two levy what is known as the "2 mil" capital outlay tax -- now mandated down to 1.25 mils for construction and maintenance of school buildings. Only three districts allocate any of the proceeds to charters.

"All property owners pay, but charter school parents get no benefit from this tax," observes Gene Waddell, who helped start the Indian River Charter High School in Vero Beach.

"As charter enrollment is around 10 percent statewide and growing like a weed, this 10 percent is really disenfranchised from the benefits of that tax. They have to operate and teach in second- or even third-class facilities for the lack of money to make improvements or construct comparable buildings."

In addition to local property taxes, the state disburses about $55 million a year toward school construction. But that money, which charters can access, is spread thin because the annual amount has stayed the same while the number of schools has increased.

"This is an equity issue that districts just dont want to lose control over," Waddell said.

Charter-school critics argue that corporate entities like Imagine Schools and Academica -- which operate scores of charter campuses around the state -- do not need to tap the public till for more money.

But Janeen Boyas, Florida chapter chairwoman of the National Coalition for Public School Options, said her group supports SB 1852 "as it will help continue to increase access to high-quality charter schools for Florida families.

"SB 1852 establishes equal funding for Florida's charter school students, will help build more charter schools and will help to allow into charter schools many students currently on waiting lists for the school of their choice.

"Sending your children to a public charter school should be a choice, not a sacrifice," Boyas said.

Waddell added: "If some of these charters are building reserves, and still competing academically, it just goes to prove that they are able to manage their dollars better, and probably would build very adequate facilities with less dollars than the districts."

Ironically, Florida's school systems exacerbated whatever financial problems they have by promoting costly class-size reduction programs.

"When you force a smaller class size, you have to build more schools and classrooms and hire more teachers," Waddell explained.

To help local districts -- but not charters -- the Legislature waived the public referendum requirement for bond issues and allowed school boards to sell, with a simple majority vote, "certificates of participation" to pledge the '2 mil' dollars to pay for bonds.

"Many districts now find themselves out on a limb with excess classrooms and excessive borrowing. This money is their only means to pay for those bonds," Waddell said.

Now, some districts are warning that if construction funds are proportionately shared, they won't have bond payment money -- even as they sit on empty classroom seats.

Florida TaxWatch calls "equal funding for public-school students" a win-win proposition.

"Competition is good, and by enhancing an appropriate level of competition, taxpayers get a break," said Dominic Calabro, president and CEO of TaxWatch.

Amber Winkler, a senior researcher with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, said, "Charters typically get the shaft when it comes to facilities spending." She cited statistics showing that Florida is one of just 13 states that provide some form of facilities assistance.

Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future has not taken a position on the charter-funding legislation, nor has the James Madison Institute, a free-market oriented think tank based in Tallahassee.

But JMI's Thomas Perrin said, "I believe we would take a position supporting this policy simply because it would help to show how charter schools are run much more efficiently than traditional public schools.

"Once people can see the difference in spending and performance when charter schools and traditional schools are receiving the exact same amount per student to operate, more questions might be raised about where all the money is being spent with traditional schools," Perrin said.

Adkins says, "It is important to note that charter schools are public schools. They are not funded privately by tuition dollars.

"Charter schools take the FCAT test and are given a school grade. It is also important to note that only those school districts with charter schools would be affected [by a fund-sharing provision], and they would only be affected based on the number of students enrolled in a charter school," Adkins said.

Norman-Teck says the concept of an equal-funding formula for charter construction is hardly a radical idea.

"The federal government allocates funding for disadvantaged children at the same level, whether they're at charter schools or traditional public schools," she notes.

Norman-Teck says the charter consortium is eager to work with anyone to develop strict accountability guidelines governing capital spending.

Pointing to charter-school governing boards, she said, "We have attorneys and other professionals who put their personal and professional lives at risk" if something goes wrong.

Contact Kenric Ward at kward@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 801-5341.

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