Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The big debate continues: Should Florida education dollars follow students or the system?

As Gov. Rick Scott took the podium Thursday to announce his support for the Legislature's big education bill, he used words that have become increasingly familiar to Floridians, speaking of the need to "help all students."

Senate President Joe Negron quickly followed suit, adding the newest catch phrase that state dollars should "follow the student" — regardless of whether parents pick "a traditional public school, a public charter, an independent school or homeschool."

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The idea, building in Florida for years, ties into the Trump administration's push to vastly expand family options. And to the most ardent school choice backers, it's a way to break down what some see as a public school system that has become stale and dated.

However, the push to have more money "follow the student" is raising hackles among Floridians who suggest the concept violates the state Constitution and a 2006 court precedent that outlawed a plan to give parents state vouchers they could use for private school tuition.

Both speak directly of a "uniform, efficient, safe, secure and high-quality system of free public schools that allows student to obtain a high quality education."

The state is legally required "to fund a system, not the children," said Tallahassee lawyer Ron Meyer, who represented families who fought the state's voucher system. "I don't know how the Constitution and the court could be any clearer."

Meyer viewed the push to have education funds follow individual children as ripe for a challenge.

So, too, does House Speaker Richard Corcoran — but from a different perspective. He wants to prevent a challenge.

Corcoran acknowledged the long-term goal is to "empower all parents to have the purchasing power to decide" how and where to get their children a "world-class education."

He even suggested that the education bill's mandate requiring public schools to share maintenance and construction money with charters is a better approach to providing the required system of free public schools, and perhaps more in keeping with the Constitution. His rationale: Charters are public schools, too, although they operate under different rules and requirements.

But Bush vs. Holmes, the 2006 case that prevented vouchers, could create a wrinkle in future attempts to expand the "follow-the-student" philosophy, Corcoran said.

The state Supreme Court ruled in that case against diverting public dollars into "separate private systems parallel to and in competition with the free public schools," which the court pointedly noted are "the sole means set out in the Constitution for the state to provide for the education of Florida's children."

Corcoran said the Constitution Revision Commission, to which he has appointed nine members, will "definitely be looking for a way to make it clearer what can and can't be done for public education."

The commission, which gathers every 20 years, is spending a year coming up with possible constitutional amendments that voters will consider in 2018. It already has conducted several public hearings.

Collier County School Board member Erika Donalds, the only local school district representative on the commission, signaled her willingness to carry the torch for Corcoran.

The founder of a charter school, Donalds said she saw the value in a competitive school marketplace, where parents are free to apply their share of state funding where they expect to get the best education for their children.

It's had an effect already, she suggested.

The charter school movement has led families away from their traditional public schools, and districts are changing to compete, she observed. The same dynamic is taking hold in the state's Voluntary Prekindergarten program, and with the McKay and Gardiner scholarships for students with special needs and disabilities.

"The only way to continue that is to allow the money to follow the students," Donalds said.

State Sen. David Simmons, chairman of the Senate PreK-12 Appropriations Committee, suggested that many of the changes in the education bill (HB 7069) do not directly fund students, despite the rhetoric.

He noted that a proposal to change the way Title I federal funds are distributed, for example, is based on type of school rather than attached to individual students. The same holds true for maintenance and construction, Simmons said, even though the money would be allocated on a per-student basis.

That's okay, he contended, because state education funding law has long been based on per-student costs. The state does so to create equity among rich and poor districts, which otherwise might see vast discrepancies in their ability to collect revenue.

But that system for distributing education money is based on a much broader set of calculations than just a per-student, amount, noted University of Florida law professor Jon Mills, who has fought school funding lawsuits and also chaired a past Constitution Revision Commission.

Teacher salaries, academic programs and other factors within a school also affect how much money really gets spent per student, he explained.

"What amount, really, are you going to have follow the child?" asked Kathleen Oropeza, an Orange County parent who sued the state over its funding formula, with Mills as one of the attorneys.

Regardless, Mills suggested, the key question is not the amount but the purpose.

"If you just said, 'Let the money follow the students,' and that would allow students to go to a private school, that's what Bush vs. Holmes said you couldn't do," he said. "Because that means we are funding private schools."

If that's so, Meyer said, the next issue becomes who, if anyone, might complain. A legislative action remains constitutional until a court says it's not, he said, and the courts lately have shut down groups that have challenged programs such as tax credit scholarships, saying they don't have standing to sue.

Oropeza worried that many Floridians haven't even noticed the shift in education funding, as it has occurred incrementally over two decades.

"It goes under the radar with most people," she said. But "we've gotten to a place where it can't be denied what is happening."

To one side, it's a disgraceful dismantling of public education. To the other, it's improving the lot in life for children, regardless of where they live.

Schooling should "give these kids a vision of what life could be about," said House Education Committee chairman Rep. Michael Bileca. "It's this bill that has the will to get it done."

HB 7069 takes effect July 1.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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