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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Charter school alliance poll shows support for ... charter schools



A new statewide poll commissioned by the Florida Charter School Alliance finds significant support for charter schools -- including support for a statewide authorizer, one of the alliance's top legislative priorities this year that school districts fear would take away local authority over public education.

The Herald/Times was given a copy of the poll results ahead of their official release, expected later this evening.

The alliance spent nearly $11,000 for National Victory Strategies to conduct the poll not knowing what the results would be, said Ralph Arza, a lobbyist for the alliance and a former Republican state lawmaker from Miami.

It's the first statewide poll Arza said he is aware of that focuses solely on education policies for charter schools -- which are publicly funded but privately managed. The alliance wants to use the results to inform and influence lawmakers in Tallahassee and school officials across the state, he said.

"It’s important for the members to see how the folks back home feel about charter schools and school choice," Arza said. "It's exciting to know you're on the right track and on the right side of these issues. Floridians want more choice not less, no matter where in the state."

But the poll isn't exactly unbiased. Some of the questions in the poll appear to lean in favor of charter schools -- Arza acknowledged writing them -- and the small sample size for community-level results could call into question the reliability of those specific findings.

Statewide, 800 registered voters likely to vote in this year's primary elections were surveyed by phone Jan. 19-25. Respondents were spread out across the state based on the size of the state's 10 media markets; there were 112 respondents in the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area and 184 in Tampa/St. Petersburg. About 83 percent of the surveys were conducted by landline phones.

The results had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Statewide, 59 percent of respondents said they were at least "somewhat favorable" to charter schools at the beginning of the poll, while 24 percent were not favorable and 17 percent had "no opinion," the results showed.

After a series of questions related to charter schools and potential policy changes, respondents were asked again of their opinion on charter schools, and the numbers jumped. Nearly 70 percent had a positive view, while 22 percent were unfavorable and 8 percent still had no opinion, according to the results.

While some of the policy questions were straightforward, others could be considered skewed. For instance, the question about a statewide authorizer reads:

"Currently in the state of Florida each county’s school board authorizes their public charter schools. Many local school boards view charter schools as a threat and therefore have made it difficult to get charter schools approved throughout Florida. Knowing this, would you support a statewide independent authorizer to approve and provide oversight to charter schools?"

Some local school board members might likely beg to differ that "many" view charter schools as a "threat." Representatives from the Florida School Boards Association have said repeatedly that school boards embrace school-choice alternatives to traditional public schools. They say they want to ensure that traditional public school programs don't suffer as a result and that charter schools are held to the same standard in both quality and accountability.

The alliance has used Palm Beach County as its primary example of school boards that have tried to resist authorizing new schools, but the FSBA calls that an “anecdotal, singular” example.

Based on the question asked, the poll found 55 percent support among statewide respondents for a statewide authorizer, with 34 percent opposed and 10 percent undecided.

The statewide authorizer is among the key priorities of charter school advocates this session. Republican lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would let the state approve new charter schools -- a power that individual school districts possess. (More here.)

The 800 people surveyed were also asked about another hot-button issue: construction dollars for capital schools versus traditional public schools.

Two-thirds found it unfair that charter school students don't benefit from local tax dollars that districts use to pay for capital projects at traditional public schools, and 62 percent said they'd support a constitutional amendment to require local capital tax dollars to be distributed equally across all public school students, regardless of institution.

The distribution of state capital dollars is shaping up to be a lively debate this session, as traditional public schools fight for more dollars after years of diminished funds when lawmakers directed much of their resources to charter schools. Charter schools are eligible for state capital dollars after existing for three years with a good record. Charter school supporters -- including the alliance -- argue charter schools should get the same level of funding as public schools.

There are 4,270 public schools in Florida with 2.7 million children. That includes more than 650 charter schools statewide with about 251,000 students.

[Last modified: Friday, January 29, 2016 8:38am]


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