Lawmakers pass massive 'school choice' bill after late negotiations over charter schools
Florida lawmakers struck a compromise Friday to pass a sweeping "school choice" education package that includes significant changes to how the state's 650 charter schools can get funding for construction and maintenance projects.
As part of a last-minute deal, the House rejected efforts by the Senate to crack down on businesses using state capital dollars to profit from charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed.
The Senate gave up on its plan to ban "private enrichment" in trade for the House accepting a revised formula that weights capital funding in favor of charter schools that serve mostly impoverished students and those with disabilities -- which was, in part, what charter schools were intended for when they were established in the 1990s.
But Democrats in both chambers blasted House Republicans for not agreeing to a "legitimate" solution to safeguard public money given to charter schools and to ensure the schools aren't used as a means to line business-owners' pockets.
"This is very bad and the lack of accountability is really amazing," Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg, said. "There are some good charter schools -- they’re engaging in innovation -- but many of the charters are engaging in imitation and bringing nothing new to the game except plundering the public treasury."
An Associated Press analysis a few months ago found that, since 2000, the state has lost $70 million in capital funding given to charter schools that later closed.
How charter schools are eligible for state capital funding was a sticking point of House Bill 7029, which House and Senate leaders negotiated well into early Friday afternoon -- the last scheduled day of the 2016 legislative session.
The bill has been revised multiple times within the past couple weeks, with re-writes ballooning the bill to, at one point Thursday, 168 pages.
The multi-faceted bill now goes to Republican Gov. Rick Scott, who still needs to sign it into law.
The package also includes measures limiting school districts' spending on capital projects, allowing open enrollment for all K-12 public school students, granting immediate eligibility for high school athletes who transfer schools, and codifying public college and university performance funding in state law, among a dozen other policy proposals.
A victim of the negotiations was efforts to improve elementary school reading instruction, which the House wanted but which weren't fully vetted through the Senate.
"Quite frankly, I’m befuddled and dumbfounded why the Senate objected to it," Rep. Ross Spano, R-Dover, said.
The fate of HB 7029 was thrown into question on Thursday evening, when the House stripped entirely the Senate's charter school capital funding reforms from its amended version -- provisions that senators emphasized were important for them.
At the time, House education budget chairman Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, blasted the Senate's version for not having a formula -- like he said his proposal had -- "that was sustainable, predictable and de-politicized."
Fresen's proposal would have changed some eligibility criteria for charter schools, in some cases, to make it easier for them to get capital funding. It also would have required school districts to share a portion of local tax dollars with charter schools.
In contrast, Niceville Republican Sen. Don Gaetz's plan barring "private enrichment" would have made it more difficult for charter schools to qualify for capital dollars. Charters would have been ineligible if they leased their facility from a private or for-profit entity or one with any affiliation to the charter school.
"That was not possible in these negotiations, if we were to get the rest of the bill," Gaetz, the Senate education budget chairman, said on the Senate floor Friday.
He said that, in private negotiations, the House raised concerns that the Senate's plan could have unintended consequences for well-intentioned individuals -- which is why, Gaetz said, the House wouldn't accept it.
"I don’t believe that that’s because the House of Representatives had some lapse of morals or value but, rather, because there are circumstances in the charter school movement where people have had to dig into their own pockets for facilities that schools use," Gaetz said.
However, Democratic senators implied ulterior motives for why House leaders didn't accept the plan.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, asked senators "to be frank" and questioned whether the House's reluctance to ban charter schools' "private enrichment" was because of "individuals who indirectly or directly gain personal wealth based on charter school construction."
Several lawmakers have close ties to charter schools, such as Fresen. He is a land consultant for Civica, an architecture firm with a specialty in building charter schools. Many of those schools were built for Academica -- which has been described as the largest charter school management company in Florida and which counts Fresen’s brother-in-law and sister as executives.
Fresen has said no conflict exits.
"(We) go home and hear the stories about how everybody just believes we're in this for our own personal enrichment, to line our own pocketbooks," Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, said. "And here we have an idea brought forward by the Senate that's entirely legitimate. If there's some issues with it, the House should have addressed those."
It appears only a single -- but consequential -- line of Fresen's plan to change charter schools' capital funding made it into the final version of HB 7029.
He slipped it in to the House's counter-offer on Thursday and the Senate agreed to it. The provision makes charter schools eligible for capital dollars a full year earlier -- by requiring them to operate first for only two years, instead of three.
Fresen didn't disclose that provision when explaining the bill to House members on Thursday but briefly acknowledged it on the floor Friday.
The slight change could potentially serve to help dozens of charter schools statewide. According to the Florida Department of Education, 55 charter schools opened in 2014.
As long as they meet other criteria, those schools would be eligible for state capital dollars as early as next school year.
One of those is Classical Preparatory School in Pasco County, which was founded by Anne Corcoran. She is the wife of Rep. Richard Corcoran -- a Land O'Lakes Republican who is the current appropriations chairman and in line to be the next speaker of the Florida House.
Anne Corcoran has made no money from her affiliation with the school; she has volunteered numerous hours of time and donated about $11,000 of her own money to help it get off the ground, according to records provided by the school.