Charter funding issue almost derails accountability bill

Feb 14, 2012

What started as a simple, charter school accountability bill quickly morphed into a debate over whether school districts should be required to share some of their funding. Lynn Hatter reports the effort follows a similar move adopted by the Senate last week on a similar funding mechanism to boost construction dollars to charter schools.

An amendment to House Bill 903 by Republican Representative Janet Atkins would have required school districts to steer part of their state and local tax funding to building and construction projects at charter schools. From the moment it was introduced—it was met with bi-partisan opposition.

 “You’ve got bi-partisan for the intent. But great concern on both sides, over the substance.” 

The Committee’s chairwoman, Republican Representative Marti Coley of Marianna, was against the amendment. It would have required school boards to give charters a stipend for construction and maintenance projects.  But Coley said she couldn’t get behind the move because it didn’t account for whether a school actually needed the funding.

 “We can’t say there’s not enough money to go around because they are public schools. We have to figure this out. We have to fund all public schools. Does this amendment get us there? I don’t think so. It does great things in moving us forward. But I don’t think the amendment as written, gets us to where we need to be.”  

 There are two main sources of building and maintenance money for the state’s public schools. Public education Capital Outlay or PECO dollars, which are handed down by the state, and local taxpayer revenues. While charters are eligible for PECO, school districts don’t have to share the taxpayer portion of the funding. The Charter schools argue they need the additional revenues to equalize the funding gap that exists between charters and traditional schools, and most importantly—provide more space for students who want to get in.

 “I worry for those people, and I ask you, what about all the parents whose children’s’ names are on the waiting list? There are thousands. You don’t cap McKay scholarships, and I ask you to not cap school choice.”  

 Many of the same people who spoke in the House committee also lobbied last week in the Senate. Michelle Touchstone was one of them. But district officials like Dr. Wayne Blanton who heads the Florida School Board Association, warned that if the measure passes it would pit public school against public school.

 “I believe in the long run this could drive a wedge between us and charter schools and that is how it’s supposed to be done. We should be working together to have the best charter and public schools we can. This is the wrong approach. I think we should come up with a way to have PECO dollars equitably distributed to everybody. But right now we’re not having a food fight; we’re fighting over the bones.”  

The fund supporting maintenance and construction dollars for public schools is almost empty due to a decline on utility usage.  The funding decrease has lawmakers looking for solutions to shore up the fund. Another proposal to shore up money for school construction would allow public schools to raise a half-cent sales tax in exchange for a decrease in property taxes.

Meanwhile, the House PreK-12 education committee vote on the revenue sharing amendment resulted in a tie, which killed it.  But the issue is still alive in the Senate version of the bill. Both measures are now heading to their last committee stops.