Charter schools are state-funded, but free from some of the rules and regulations that govern traditional public schools. Many of them are privately owned and operated. Charters get less funding than regular schools do. The biggest funding inequity comes in construction and building money, but a bill in the Florida House could soon change that.
Charter schools began in Florida in the late 1990’s under former Governor Jeb Bush. At the time one of the main arguments for them, was that they could do more with less. “If you fast forward 16 years later, they are finding out that they can’t do it for less money," said Wayne Blanton, head of the Florida Association of School Boards.
There are more than 2500 traditional public schools and more than 500 charters in Florida. In the last few years conflicts have emerged over funding for building, maintenance and construction. A fund called Public education capital outlay or PECO-- is supported by taxes on things like land-lines. PECO dollars have historically gone to public schools. But Blanton says in recent years revenue for the fund has dropped sharply.
“In the last two years, charter schools have gotten all the public education capital outlay money available. That was $55 million two years ago and $55 million last year. So it appears to me that the promise of increased academic performance and doing it with less dollars has not been followed up on by the charter schools," he said.
Building new schools costs money. During the last two years, charter school groups have backed bills pushing for additional funding—mostly in the construction and maintenance. Last year, a proposal requiring districts to share a portion of local tax revenue with charter schools died. But this year, a bill in the House would, among other things, require those districts to give charter schools access to unused public school facilities. Charters would only have to pay for mantainence.
“I’ll tell you that you’ll have a hard time finding a public school educator that’s going to feel like this is a plan that will best serve the needs of students in public schools," said Wakulla County School Superintendent Robert Pearce.
Opponents to the move have called it a land-grab, and characterize it as giving public money to private entities. In a House committee meeting supporters of the proposal argue charter schools are public schools, and deserve parity:
“There’s an underlying bias here that really concerns me," said Rep. Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala) in an appropriations committee taking up the House charter school bill.
"We’re hearing language like, 'giving buildings away' and 'not public schools,' Baxley said. "These are public schools. And it’s just an absolute bias of an alternative way of managing schools and treating it as if they aren’t part of our family. These are uses that are legitimate."
The proposal is favored more by for-profit charter school companies, and less so by not-for-profit charter groups. It cleared the House Appropriations Committee and has one more stop in the chamber. There are companion bills in the Senate. But several key Senators like Democrat Bill Montford and Republican David Simmons, have said they don’t support the House bill. Meanwhile, Wayne Blanton with the Florida School Board Association says school districts don’t mind sharing...for a fee. He proposes charter schools should pay rent.
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