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Public schools in a tug-of-war over building funds

The state’s education budget is slated to be increased this year after years of funding cuts, and public schools say any increase is better than nothing. But within the traditional school structure, an internal battle is brewing. And Lynn Hatter reports it revolves around funding for one specific type of public school- charters.

Charters are public schools with more flexibility in who they hire and how they operate.  But there’s a trade-off to that flexibility, as a report out of a state tax watchdog points out:

“In a comparison with charter schools and their districts in the same geographical region our analysis found that charter schools receive less money overall. About 68-70 percent of the revenues.”

Robert Weissert is an economist with Florida TaxWatch—a group that tracks how state money is spent. And he says when it comes to education funding—charters schools make do with about a third-less money than their traditional public school counterparts.

One in 15 public school students attend a charter, and there are now more than 500 of them in the state.  But it’s only been within the last 15 years the industry has been in Florida. Weissert says that’s another reason why those schools haven’t historically gotten as much money -- they’re still largely experimental:

“These aren’t easy questions to answer because we are dealing, not just with public dollars but with education money. And charter schools are an experiment, and a new way of providing public education for a subset of our population to ensure our future.”  

The biggest gaps in funding come from two sources: federal money, and school construction dollars. Trying to equalize the federal side of the equation is tricky and complex.  But the other side of the funding formula, school construction , is one area Florida lawmakers think they can make a difference.

Michelle Touchstone is a mom whose two sons attend a charter school.

 “To me, if you’re going to be a part of something, we need to have equal rules, the same playing field.  Let’s all play together, so every child in Florida will be under the same rules. That’s what I’m asking for.”  

She’s talking about an inequity in the way local taxes for school construction and maintenance projects are spent. Right now, traditional schools don’t have to share that money with charters. And according to the Florida School Superintendent’s Association’s Joy Frank, that tax generated about $1.9 billion dollars last year.  Most of it goes to pay off existing schools.

“Charter schools have needs, we have needs. The debt service… eats up almost all our capital outlay. The remainder goes to buy the yellow school buses, pay for property and casualty insurance—basically, we don’t have hardly anything to share.”  

But Senate Bill 1852 would require local school boards to share a portion of that construction money raised by property taxes with charter schools.  Right now they only get state dollars while traditional schools get both state and local construction money.  

Doug Rodriguez is the principal at a charter school in Miami. He says he understands both sides of the argument, but at his school, there’s a waiting list of two-thousand students. They can’t get in, because there’s no more space.

 “It is heartbreaking to tell parents each year that I don’t have space for your children. By sharing millege, what we’re doing is giving parents and schools like Doral and others…the opportunity to expand to open additional seats for children.”  

But not everyone feels charter schools and traditional schools should get to play in the same financial sandbox.  People like Colleen Wood, whose children go to school in St. John’s county, says she can’t get behind giving public money to schools that are, in many cases, run by private, for-profit businesses.

 “We are republicans, democrats and independent voters. And we oppose giving the limited public school capital dollars to private corporations. We are not in favor of this kind of corporate welfare, especially when our public schools are suffering.”  

The issue of school construction money is compounded this year because the state source of that funding is almost broke. PECO, or Public Education Capital Outlay is made up by a tax on utilities. And there’s not enough money in the trust fund to cover existing projects.  Governor Rick Scott ordered the state’s public schools to give back unspent money, and last year he vetoed almost all the building projects for public schools—leaving the dollars for charters intact. This year the governor requested $55-million dollars for charter projects, while traditional schools got nothing. And the budget proposal in the House honors that $55 million dollar request.


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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

Find complete bio, contact info, and more stories here.