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Just say no to for-profit charter schools, Florida Sen. Janet Cruz proposes in new bill

Charter operators ‘shouldn’t be allowed to profit on our tax dollars,’ Cruz says.
SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
New State Senator Janet Cruz, D- Tampa, right, shares a laugh on the floor of the Florida Senate, Tuesday, November 20, 2018 with Senator Ben Albrittton, R- Wauchula, left.
SCOTT KEELER | Times New State Senator Janet Cruz, D- Tampa, right, shares a laugh on the floor of the Florida Senate, Tuesday, November 20, 2018 with Senator Ben Albrittton, R- Wauchula, left.
Published Jan. 31, 2019

The groups that open and operate publicly funded charter schools in Florida shouldn’t be making a profit off the endeavor, state Sen. Janet Cruz says.

That means the organizations that select the schools' board members, oversee their daily operations, make budget decisions, hire and fire employees, or provide real estate and construction services, among other aspects. Charter schools have in the past come under scrutiny for funneling money to connected for-profit management and real estate branches, but past efforts to change laws allowing such practices have not passed.

“Folks shouldn’t be allowed to profit on our tax dollars, and that’s exactly what I see happening here. ... They have bastardized the whole intent of what a charter school should be, and turned it into a profit center,” said Cruz, a Tampa Democrat whose SB 584 would prohibit for-profit actors in the charter school world.

“If you really believe in the betterment of education for children, if you really are in this for the right reasons and you have something to offer that is better for students, it should be non-profit,” she said, pointing to Pepin Academies, which serves students with disabilities in the Tampa Bay region, as a positive example.

Cruz observed that district schools across Florida are struggling to make ends meet, unable to keep up with routine maintenance such as air conditioning repairs. Teachers are in short supply, she added, with low pay a significant contributing factor. Dozens of districts have asked voters to make up the difference by imposing tax increases on themselves.

“Yet we open charter schools that operate under the premise of being non-profit, yet the companies that manage them are for-profit,” she said, noting those companies then deliver money to election campaigns for candidates who support them. “It infuriates me.”

(Cruz withdrew her support of former Hillsborough School Board member Susan Valdes in the race for Cruz’s old House seat, because of Valdes' financial ties to charter schools. Valdes still won.)

In a charter school friendly Legislature, after narrowly ousting an incumbent Republican, Cruz knows she faces an uphill battle to gain traction on this legislation. She sits on the Education Committee, but understands the chairman who controls the committee agenda works for a company that operates charters.

Still, she intends to push the matter as far as she can. Parents in her district are demanding such changes, she said.

“My advice to the charter school advocates in the Legislature is to start listening to the moms in their communities,” she said.