TALLAHASSEE — Charter schools continue to blossom in popularity and in number throughout Florida, but the controversy surrounding them isn't dissipating in 2016 — especially as "school choice" continues to dominate education policy coming out of the state Capitol.
As Republican lawmakers consider plans to make it easier for charter schools to form and also to hold them more accountable so schools are less likely to fail, legislators and education advocates, both for and against charter schools, say a main sticking point in the "school choice" debate this session is how much in taxpayer aid charter schools should get for construction and capital costs.
This year, charter schools and traditional public schools each received about $50 million. But for a few years prior, capital funding for charter schools far exceeded what traditional schools got, which left many traditional schools with minimal resources — if they got any help at all from the state — to renovate withering facilities or pay off debt.
Proponents of charter schools — public schools run by private companies — said it's only fair that they get at least as much as traditional schools. But school boards and teachers argue the Republican-led Legislature ought to make up for starving traditional schools of needed capital dollars during a time they sought to make charter schools a priority instead.
"The Florida Legislature is always looking for a way to divert public dollars to private entities, and the Florida Constitution is pretty clear: It says public schools are their paramount duty," said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association, the state's largest teachers' union.
"If they stopped diverting those dollars, just think what we could do for 2.7 million children," she said.
But Ralph Arza, a former Miami Republican legislator and current lobbyist for Florida charter schools, said lawmakers shouldn't "discriminate" against kids because their parents choose an alternative to traditional public schools and it would be unfair to give traditional schools more money, even though they still vastly outnumber charter schools.
There are 4,270 public schools in Florida, including more than 650 charter schools statewide with more than 250,000 students.
"There should be equal funding," said Arza, who represents the Florida Charter School Alliance. "We need more schools, not less, and in order to have schools, we need capital outlay."
In his budget proposal for 2016-17, Republican Gov. Rick Scott recommends equal funding — and more dollars than this year — for both charter and traditional public schools: $75.2 million for each. It'll be up to lawmakers, though, to decide how much to put in their budget.
Charter schools can't rely on local property taxes to pay for capital expenses, as traditional public schools can. They don't automatically get capital funding; a charter school has to have a good track record and exist for at least three years before it's eligible.
Arza said parents choose to send their children to charter schools because traditional schools either don't pass muster or don't offer the types of opportunities that parents want, and he said lawmakers shouldn't stifle that demand.
"If you don't fund the facilities you are in essence, capping parental choice at school," he said.
But teachers and Democratic lawmakers argue that charter schools often replicate traditional public schools — rather than providing true alternatives — and by restricting funding for traditional public schools, it perpetuates their decline.
"There seems to be an over-concentration on choice rather than a focus on making regular neighborhood schools better," said Jacksonville Rep. Reggie Fullwood, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Some education advocates also expressed concerns about further funding charter schools with capital dollars because of a recent Associated Press analysis. It found, of more than $760 million from state taxpayers since 2000, schools in 30 districts shuttered their doors after receiving as much as $70 million. School districts often couldn't recoup that money because it had been spent on rent or other intangible costs, rather than property or equipment that would otherwise revert back to the district.
"As a taxpayer, I say, 'Wait, just a minute,' " said Andrea Messina, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association. "There are a number of pieces in there that push up against what we say is important when we're using taxpayer dollars."
It's those concerns that Republican lawmakers want to address through legislation this session that would add more accountability for private entities seeking to start charter schools, while also offering an avenue that could make it easier for them to set up shop.
"I'm always in favor of making sure when public money is used, that we have a careful eye on how that money is being used to make sure that it doesn't disappear," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, chairman of the Senate education budget committee.
Republican lawmakers in the House, specifically, want to establish a Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation to help charter school operators submit solid applications to better navigate the approval process.
The bill also proposes sanctions — the waiving of administrative fees charter schools ordinarily pay school districts — to crack down on districts, like Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, that try to limit the proliferation of charter schools.
"There are school districts trying to fight parental choice and want to protect the school district bureaucracy. When you see these laws that come out, it's a reaction to that," Arza said.
Representatives for traditional public schools said education is not a competitive business in which traditional schools have a "monopoly," as Arza calls it. Rather, they argue, the state has an obligation to protect and enhance the quality of public education, regardless of the provider, and they say some charter schools haven't cut it.
"A typical public school and school districts welcome accountability and they're not opposed to choice," Messina said. "They just want them to have the same accountability for academic and fiscal things."
Contact Kristen M. Clark at email@example.com Follow @ByKristenMClark.