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Integrity Florida Study Looks At Political Influence, Growth Of Charter Schools

Ryan Dailey

The nonpartisan research group Integrity Florida has released a new study about Florida’s charter schools and the industry’s political influence. The study took nearly a year to complete, and takes a deep dive into how the charter model became what it is today.

The research tracks how charters have grown and changed since the state’s charter school law was passed in 1996. It asserts charters have strayed from the initial purpose they were meant to serve. Originally launched as teacher-run schools meant to be symbiotic with traditional public institutions, charters now account for 10 percent of Florida’s public enrollment.

“Since charter schools were authorized in Florida in 1996, the sector has grown to more than 650 schools, enrolling almost 300,000 students,” researcher Alan Stonecipher said. He calls charter schools a “phenomenon,” and says their creation is driven by a desire to privatize public schools.

“Increasingly they are managed by for-profit companies — 294 charters have contracts with for-profits, or 45 percent of all charter schools,” Stonecipher said.

By comparison, 15 percent of charters nationally are controlled by for-profit companies. Brad Ashwell is another researcher who contributed to the study. He addressed the increasing political influence behind Florida’s charter companies.

“In regards to campaign finance, we found that charter school interests have given $13 million in Florida to candidates, committees and parties since 1998,” Ashwell said.

Ashwell says that doesn’t include the cost of hiring lobbyists.

“The lobbyist expenditures, we found they spent more than $8 million on legislative lobbyists in Florida between 2007 and 2017,” Ashwell said. “Spending has increased steadily overtime, with spikes in 2013 and 2015. During this period, 10 companies alone spent $5 million hiring 262 lobbyists.”

Ben Wilcox directs research at Integrity Florida. He insists the report was written in the group’s capacity as being a government watchdog. Still, Wilcox acknowledges some charter schools have functioned successfully. The study notes a higher percent of charter schools receive ‘A’ grades from the State than traditional public schools. Yet, Wilcox points out that hasn’t influenced the number of charters that have shuttered over the past 20 years.

“More than 373 charter schools have closed in Florida,” Wilcox said. “These closures are due to a variety of reasons, ranging from poor academic performance, to declining enrollments, to financial mismanagement, and to criminal corruption.”

Wilcox says a charter’s closing can bring unforeseen headaches.

“It is often difficult to get taxpayer funds back. A closure can also cause severe problems for a school district, which must absorb he displaced students and faculty,” Wilcox said.

Integrity Florida’s study also includes a dozen of what it calls “policy options,” recommendations for legislation that would lessen charters’ effect on public resources. Among them is a recommendation all future attempts at creating a statewide charter authorizer be opposed.

Critics say a statewide authorizer that greenlights charters to open would take local control away from school boards and voters. Amendment 8, which would have done just that, has been removed from the 2018 ballot.

Ryan Dailey is a reporter/producer for WFSU/Florida Public Radio. After graduating from Florida State University, Ryan went into print journalism working for the Tallahassee Democrat for five years. At the Democrat, he worked as a copy editor, general assignment and K-12 education reporter.