Thursday, Nov 27, 2014

Pinellas teams up to plug leak from charter schools

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CLEARWATER — More parents are enrolling their children in charter schools than ever before, but every student that leaves the public school system next year could be taking a growing amount of money and resources with them.

The Pinellas County School District is working with others across the state in hopes of plugging the growing leak in public school budgets that comes each year with new charter school laws and legislation. To start, school board members gave school attorneys the go-ahead last week to look into filing a lawsuit against the state over a new law that would create a standardized operating contract for charter schools next fall.

School boards are required to allow a charter school to open if it meets the requirements outlined in the contract the two parties negotiate. In the past, the boards have been able to write their own contracts with their own requirements. But next school year, when every contract will be the same, it could be more difficult to deny a charter school, Pinellas school board member Rene Flowers said. With the possibility that more state funding could be tied directly to students, it also means school districts could lose money as more charter schools move in.

“We’re going to go into negotiations with our hands tied,” Flowers said. “I feel like we’re already competing with these big businesses for dollars for our students’ educations, and this just further limits our ability to really be discerning and conscientious.”

Despite concerns about their impact on public education, demand for charter schools is increasing as parents seek smaller class sizes, more rigorous classroom requirements and more extra-curricular options for their children, said Lynn Norman-Teck, communications director for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

A recent report by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools found that 20 percent of students nationally are enrolled in public charter schools. In Florida, 578 charter schools in 46 school districts serve more than 203,000 students, and Hillsborough County, with 51 charter schools, has the fifth-highest growth rate for charter schools in the nation.

In Pinellas, which has 25 charter schools, three charter school applications already have been approved this school year, meaning the district will begin negotiations with the charter companies to get the schools up and running. If all three complete the process and open, they could enroll 1,300 students combined, costing the district about $38.2 million over a standard, five-year contract period.

Those costs include everything from lost state revenue and grant money based on student enrollment numbers to state money for teacher salaries and school construction costs that districts must share with charter schools.

During lobbying efforts next year, school districts should beware of legislation that attempts to tie more state funding to student enrollment, a trend in recent years, said Scott Howat, senior executive director of legislative relations for Orange County public schools.

An example is a new law that requires school districts to pay tuition costs for students taking free dual-enrollment courses at state colleges without any additional funding. That will cost Florida school districts an estimated $40 million to $60 million next school year, a cost that hasn’t been budgeted because it’s typically absorbed by colleges.

“We know that’s where they’re moving through some of the policy decisions they’re making: the money follows the student,” Howat said. “Wherever that student decides to go for school, that’s where the money is going to go.”

This school year, 6,037 Pinellas students were enrolled in charter schools, a 16.5 percent increase from the previous year, while public schools enrolled 95,662 students — about a 1 percent drop.

Public school enrollment in the county dropped by 974 students, while 855 students enrolled in area charter schools. Pinellas had 19 charter applications this year — the most the school district has ever had, said Dot Clark, Pinellas County Schools’ coordinator of partnership schools.

A report from the state Department of Education found 178,892 students were enrolled in 525 charter schools last year — 6.7 percent of total public school enrollment. Charter schools received $1.029 billion in funding, and school districts ended up spending $39.45 million on administrative services for the schools.

As charter enrollment continues to climb and funding models change, the Pinellas district jumped at the chance to provide input on the state Department of Education’s new model charter contract, mainly because “we didn’t want to be out of the game completely,” said Pinellas County school district attorney David Koperski. That model is nearly “ready to go,” he said.

“But even though we’ve done that, I still believe we can challenge it,” Koperski said.

Pinellas school district officials, as well as those across the Tampa Bay area and the state, have agreed to launch a major lobbying effort against the new charter legislation at the start of next year. For many, the new measures proposed by the state encroach on school boards’ constitutional authority to control local public education. Several school districts are expected to sue, Koperski said.

“I’m very comfortable with any kind of legal challenge that’s necessary,” said Pinellas school board Chairwoman Carol Cook. “I think this is something we have to do.”

adawson@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-9851

Twitter: @adawsonTBO

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