Florida House approves controversial bill to divert district funds to charter schools

Rep. Erik Fresen is personally connected to charters.
Rep. Erik Fresen is personally connected to charters.
Published March 28, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Without a word of debate Friday, the Florida House approved a controversial proposal that could require school districts to share tens of millions of dollars in construction funds with rival charter schools.

The bill was one of four high-profile education proposals that won the support of the Republican-dominated House to end the week. The others would:

•Ease the penalties for schools that fail to comply with the constitutionally mandated limits on class size.

•Create a pilot program to give principals more control over hiring and budget decisions.

•Encourage school districts to adopt mandatory school uniform policies for children in grades K-8 by offering incentive money.

All of the Democrats in attendance voted against the charter school bill, HB 7037. But none debated the measure on the floor.

Democratic leader Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach said the 75-35 vote spoke for itself.

"I think that sends a pretty clear message that there's a major problem with the bill," Pafford said. "It directs dollars away from public schools."

The proposal would create the Florida Institute for Charter School Innovation to help new charter schools. It would also make it easier for top-performing charter schools to replicate themselves in high-need areas and specify that charter schools receiving back-to-back Fs would be automatically closed.

The bill found little opposition at first — until House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, R-Miami, added the contentious provision about construction funding.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, have long sought a stable revenue stream for construction and maintenance. Unlike traditional public schools, they cannot levy property taxes for that purpose. But school districts oppose sharing their tax dollars because most of the money is earmarked for debt service. What's more, they point out that many charter schools are housed in privately owned facilities that do not revert to the public if the school closes.

The bill that passed Friday would ensure charter schools receive about 40 percent of the amount traditional public schools can raise for construction and maintenance, Fresen said.

If the state does not provide enough money in the budget, as it has done in recent years, the school districts would have to make up the difference with their tax revenue.

That Fresen sponsored the amendment was controversial. His firm has helped build several charter schools, and his brother-in-law runs Academica, the state's largest charter school management company.

Fresen said he did not consider the amendment to be a conflict of interest because it would not increase funding for charter schools.

"There's already money for capital outlay," he told the Times/Herald. "All this does is create a predictable framework for this capital outlay money to be expended."

Democrats also raised problems with the measure itself. Several voiced their concerns during a caucus meeting earlier Friday.

"The deal with charter schools was supposed to be that they operate on a shoestring budget," said state Rep. Richard Stark, D-Weston. "They didn't need the capital outlay funding."

Still, the proposal won over all but one member of the Republican caucus, which strongly supports school choice. (The lone dissenter was Rep. Rene Plasencia, a teacher from Orlando.)

"It has certainly been a priority of the House over the last several years and we're focused on it again this year," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said.

The other three education bills found widespread support.

The bill creating a principal pilot project, HB 357, passed 100-8. The proposal encouraging school uniform policies, HB 7043, passed 102-8.

The class size proposal, HB 665, found only three opponents: Pafford, Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, D-Miami, and Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura.

The bill aims to lessen the penalties for school districts that don't comply with the constitutional limit on class size. The penalties would now be calculated based on the average class size at each school, instead of the total number of classrooms that exceed the cap.

School systems had asked for the change, saying it was a logistical challenge to meet the requirement and the penalties were too harsh.

"We need to modify the penalty to bring common sense to this and put the money back into the schools," said Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale.

But Pafford stressed that Florida voters had asked for the prescribed student-teacher ratios, both when they approved the constitutional amendment in 2002 and when they rejected a proposal to water down the amendment in 2010.

"This is basically death by a thousand cuts in terms of class size," he said.

Three of the four education bills are moving through the Senate. Only the school uniform proposal lacks a companion in the upper chamber.

As of Friday, the Senate version of the charter school bill, SB 1552, did not include language about construction money. But Senate leaders have indicated they are interested in incorporating something similar in the coming weeks.

Contact Kathleen McGrory at Follow @kmcgrory.