Two state senators from opposite parties, sharing a professional interest in public education, are working on a compromise this week in Florida's high-stakes political struggle over charter school funding and operation.
Sen. John Legg, R-Lutz, wants to separate the most nettlesome issue — allowing charter operators to use abandoned public school buildings — from myriad other issues of academic accountability, proper business management and developing a funding stream for the charters contained in the dozen bills before his Senate Education Committee. Legg said he and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, hope to open surplus school space for many public uses, not just by charter schools.
Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association, calls the move “a land grab,” turning taxpayer property over to private companies to compete with the traditional public schools. Advocates of the charter schools, which have grown from five campuses across Florida in the 1996-97 school year to 579, contend it's time their schools get a reliable revenue source and can move into buildings no longer needed by the public schools.
Money and management aside, there are political considerations.
The FEA lobbyists and other unions have been fighting privatization for years. This year's debate is complicated by a separate “parent trigger” bill, allowing parents to petition county school boards to put failing schools on a rehabilitation plan, with the threat of closure hanging over them. Teacher unions and civil rights groups see that as a way of moving children and money out of district-run schools and into corporate-run charter academies.
And Gov. Rick Scott, an advocate of privatization generally and charter schools particularly, is in a ticklish position of trying to patch things up with the teachers. After earlier backing laws to remove tenure and link teacher salaries to student performance, Scott's top budget priority this year is a $2,500 teacher pay raise. That proposal has run into considerable skepticism among Republican legislative leaders, who prefer the merit-pay method.
Scott has proposed $100 million in funding for the charter schools, but Legg said it's more likely lawmakers will provide something closer to the $55 million now being spent. Legg, who is co-founder and business manager of Dayspring Academy in Port Richey, said there is no link between pending charter reforms and the parent trigger bill, which narrowly failed in the Senate last year but seems likely to pass in some form this year.
Legg said legislators are likely to demand more accountability for salaries and other expenses in charter schools, along with more strict requirements for starting one, demanding proof of solvency and management capability.
“One of the highest levels of frustrations I have is when you see a charter school shut down, and what I've heard over and over is, 'Well, we're educators, not business people.' That's unacceptable. This is a business, school districts are a business,” said Legg. “Just because you have a large heart and want to help kids doesn't mean you should be opening a charter school.”
Charter schools are public schools, but they can't levy property taxes for construction and maintenance as county school districts do. The nonprofit organizations or management companies running them receive tax money for salaries and materials but last year were unsuccessful in seeking a permanent revenue stream.
Rep. Janet Atkins and Sen. Aaron Bean, both Fernandina Beach Republicans, again have raised the issue of providing recurring revenue sources for construction and maintenance.
Montford, a former high school principal and school superintendent in Leon County, said the original concept of charter schools was to free them from bureaucratic rules and red tape so they could innovate in curriculum and teaching methods. He and Legg would like to see that trend spread, taking what's been learned from charter school independence and applying it to the traditional public schools.
“We've got 15 years experience, so now's a good time to take a serious look at how successful charter schools have been, what makes them successful and then let the regular public schools benefit from the same rules and regulations and innovations,” Montford said. “But at the same time, we have to tighten down and hold them responsible. What's really a shame is that in some charter schools, the way they've operated, the students have lost a year or more of instruction because of the poor operation of some charter schools.”
Ford, the teachers union leader, said that, “Florida hasn't thought this out very well, even though we've been doing it for over a decade.” He said making prospective charter operators show financial stability and academic ability “is a step in the right direction” but that “we shouldn't be giving away the taxpayers' assets for free” by letting them move into under-utilized or empty school space.
Longtime lobbyist Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, predicted that when the 2013 session ends May 3, “We're going to see one very large, very controversial charter bill” that will be negotiated by the top legislative leaders and the Department of Education. He said it will include “more transparency in charter-school finances and restrictions on what they can spend on,” but the big points of contention will be the permanent facilities funding source and use of space in public buildings.
“It doesn't make any sense to us to give them both free facilities and a source of capital-outlay dollars,” Blanton said.
But Legg said it doesn't make any sense to the GOP leadership to have empty school buildings, mostly in low-income neighborhoods, that someone could be using to create what he dubbed “district academies of innovation.”
He said Okaloosa County, in Senate President Don Gaetz's district, recently found a way to use an unneeded elementary school for job training in partnership with a Panhandle college. He said he and Montford want to work out a bipartisan solution allowing public education use of such facilities, whether by charter schools or other government agencies.
“Perhaps we can have the best of both worlds -- a public facility that's publicly used, but not duplicate the exact same services that the traditional school has been providing,” he said, “perhaps an innovative model in the arts, sciences or something that's not currently being offered.”