TALLAHASSEE — After suffering bruising defeats during last year's legislative session, charter school advocates have descended upon the capital city with a revamped strategy.
Circle the wagons. Narrow the agenda. And make nice with the school districts.
This year, charter school lobbyists will focus on winning state money for maintenance and facilities. If they can't secure the dollars, they want the right to use the empty space in traditional public schools free of charge.
With the state running a surplus, charter school advocates find themselves in a stronger position than last year. They have an all-star lineup of lobbyists, the ear of House Speaker Will Weatherford and a crop of lawmakers sympathetic to their cause.
But victory isn't guaranteed, especially with Gov. Rick Scott trying to win over public school teachers and parents in advance of the 2014 election. The Senate could be an obstacle, too. Rather than vote on any of the charter school bills, the Senate Education Committee will hold a workshop today, signaling a desire to move cautiously.
"It's all going to depend on the charter schools' approach," said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami. "If they come at the issue in a fair and thoughtful way, more of us may be willing to consider it."
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive tax dollars for teacher salaries and educational materials. But unlike traditional public schools, which are run by elected school boards, charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations or private management companies.
In Florida, more than 200,000 students are enrolled in the semi-private schools, accounting for about 8 percent of total public school enrollment. But in lean budget times, charter schools have spurred a bitter public policy battle that has forced districts, superintendents, teachers, union leaders, parents and school management companies to take sides.
The latest clash: funding for facilities.
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can't levy taxes for maintenance and construction. Charters asked to share in the tax dollars last year, but were rebuffed by lawmakers.
For the past several years, charters statewide have received some money for infrastructure and repairs, either through the Public Education Capital Outlay fund or through a one-time budget allocation. This year, Scott is proposing $100 million.
But Rep. Janet Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican and chairwoman of the House K-12 education subcommittee, is sponsoring a bill that would require the state to designate recurring revenue for charter school construction and maintenance, and increase accountability.
"I'm not looking for 1:1 parity," Adkins told the Times/Herald. "But I don't think public charter schools should be funded at the current levels. That disparity is too large."
The charter school lobby considers the bill among its top priorities. "What we're asking for is demand-driven funding," said former state Rep. Ralph Arza, who now lobbies for the Florida Charter School Alliance.
Advocates are also rallying behind a proposal from Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, that would require underenrolled traditional schools to make their empty space available to charter schools. The House version, HB 7009, won the support of the House Appropriations Committee in a party-line vote last week.
How successful will the charter school lobby be this year?
Charter advocates have several factors working in their favor. Both Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz are strong supporters and have placed other advocates in key roles.
A growing number of lawmakers have personal ties to charter schools. Sen. John Legg, who is chairman of the Senate Education Committee, is co-founder and business administrator of Dayspring Academy in Port Richey.
Anne Corcoran, wife of future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, plans to open a classics-themed charter school in Pasco County. House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel is on the board of the McKeel Academy Schools in Polk County.
In addition, the brother-in-law of House Education Appropriations Chairman Erik Fresen of Miami runs the state's largest charter management firm, Academica Corp. And Sen. Anitere Flores, also of Miami, is the president of an Academica-managed charter college in Doral.
The charter school lobby has already laid the groundwork for success with campaign contributions. The state's two largest charter school operators, their related companies and top executives spent more than $425,000 on political candidates and organization in the most recent election cycle, state records show.
It doesn't hurt to have former Sens. Jim Horne and Al Lawson making the rounds in the Capitol, or the backing of former Gov. Jeb Bush's nonprofit, the Foundation for Florida's Future.
Still, the hurdles are significant.
School districts, superintendents and the teachers' union are fiercely opposed to any legislation that would give state funding to charter school facilities. They argue it would eat into the dollars previously given to traditional public schools.
What's more, grass roots parents' groups have voiced concerns about public dollars going toward private assets.
"This shouldn't be about profits," said Colleen Wood, a parent activist from St. Johns County.
Traditional public schools aren't excited about the prospect of sharing facilities, either.
"It doesn't make sense for us to be giving them capital outlay funds and our space for free," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association.
Observers say the facilities bills will likely pass the House. The Senate will be trickier.
Then, there's the governor. Scott has supported charter schools.
But in advance of the 2014 election, he has been trying to appeal to public school teachers, who aren't big fans of charter schools.
Sen. Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat, doubts the bills will reach the governor's desk.
"There is no desire to go tit-for-tat with the charter schools this year," Bullard said.