Why Florida’s charter schools need more scrutiny | Paula Dockery
Charter schools are receiving hundreds of millions in tax dollars with little accountability.
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years.
Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years. [ Paula Dockery ]
Published Feb. 27, 2020

The first charter school opened in Florida in 1996. The original intent was to turn over managerial and financial control to administrators in public schools and to allow teachers to use innovative teaching methods. Successful innovative techniques were to be shared with traditional schools.

These experimental schools were to remain within the public-school system and were embraced by the Florida Legislature as a form of school choice.

They were initiated within the schools. The teachers and administrators worked with the parents of their students to develop a charter and convert the traditional public school into a conversion charter school.

Some in the education community opposed the concept, fearing that it would lead to the incremental dismantling of public education — a fear with some merit.

After charter conversions became a reality, the next step was to establish charter schools operated by nonprofit organizations with expertise in an area that addressed a special need of students. Then the charter school movement expanded to nonprofits without a specialty. And, of course, that eventually led to for-profit charter schools.

The original intent of sharing innovative methods to others in the public-school system was replaced by permitting private corporations to siphon off tax dollars appropriated for education.

Elected officials that believe in privatization of government functions support expanding charter schools as a means to that end.

Since 1996, the Legislature has taken away almost all school board oversight and given it to charter school boards. It has also diverted more education tax dollars to charter schools for operations and for facilities.

Just this week, Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Legislature were faced with a situation in which a not-for-profit organization with a single-source contract for overseeing domestic violence programs in the state paid its CEO $7.5 million over the past three years — much of it for time she didn’t work. U.S. Reps. Kathy Castor of Tampa and Ted Deutch of Boca Raton called for a federal investigation. The Florida Legislature ended that contract and is seeking answers. DeSantis called for a review of all single-source contracts in the state.

Clearly there was not enough oversight and millions of tax dollars were wasted. Shouldn’t we err on the side of more oversight when dealing with private entities that take tens of millions of our tax dollars to perform a service, whether they are nonprofit or for-profit?

There are 658 charter schools in Florida, and about half are run by for-profit organizations. They educate roughly 10 percent of all public-school students.

While new charter schools continue to open in Florida, 409 have closed their doors since 1998. Florida ranks second in the nation for charter school closures.

Sadly, the state can’t tell us why they closed because they don’t track that information. School boards are not required to track that information, but some do. A report by Tampa Bay’s 10News found that reasons for closure ranged from low enrollment, to health and safety concerns, to academics. The leading reason was financial issues.

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Where do these students go when their charter school closes? They mostly get reabsorbed into traditional public schools — sometimes during the school year.

Nearly 40 percent of Florida’s charter schools have closed and yet the Legislature pushes for less, rather than more, accountability and more, rather than fewer, tax dollars to open and operate more charters.

In recent years charter schools also have received most state funding for capital projects. Last year school districts that educate 90 percent of Florida’s public-school students received $50 million while charter schools received $150 million. These dollars can go for rent, construction or renovation of facilities that are owned by private organizations —s ometimes the charter operator.

Why isn’t the Florida Legislature interested in how many schools are closing and why? How much have they spent on charter schools that have closed?

A few key findings in an in-depth report on “The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice” by Integrity Florida— a government watchdog group — may provide some clues. It discovered that the charter school industry has spent more than $13 million to influence state education policy through contributions to political campaigns and more than $8 million to lobby the Legislature.

Now the Legislature wants to divert more tax revenue — from local property taxes — to charter school facilities through HB 7097. It makes no sense to throw money at schools that have a 40 percent chance of closing.

The governor and legislators owe it to taxpayers to be better stewards of our money.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA.