Column: Respect Florida's public schools and properly fund them

Published May 24, 2017

'Downright evil."

"Crazy people."


These are just a few of the choice comments directed this year at those who choose to fight on behalf of Florida's constitutional commitment that "all K-12 public school students are entitled to a uniform, safe, secure, efficient, and high quality system of education."

As a state representative for the last seven years, I can confidently say that the level of disrespect shown to the incredible teachers, school administrators, support staff and parents who strive every day to provide our children with the exceptional public education they deserve was unprecedented and, frankly, shocking this session.

In the face of never-ending, mostly unfunded, mandates from Tallahassee, the fact of the matter is our public schools in Florida are already doing much more with much less than they deserve.

When adjusted for inflation, per-pupil funding continues to lag behind what it was in 2007, before the Great Recession. Public schools statewide are billions of dollars behind in much-needed capital funding for maintenance and upkeep. Our teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation, making $9,000 less than the national average.

That's not to say that there aren't areas where public schools could improve, but to pretend that funding isn't a serious issue is ignorant at best, and disingenuous at worst.

However, those in the Republican leadership in Tallahassee view their own inaction to improve our public education system as the perfect excuse to siphon billions of your tax dollars to well-connected, for-profit charter school corporations.

I'm disappointed to report that this 20-year assault on public education reached its pinnacle this session with the introduction of HB 7069.

Composed entirely behind closed doors and cobbled together from at least 55 different bills ranging in diversity from whether children can apply their own sunscreen to the creation of a $140 million slush fund for out-of-state charter operators, this 278-page behemoth was unveiled to the public 72 hours before the end of session. As a further insult, HB 7069 was presented as a conference report to a budget conforming bill that could not be amended by rule.

So what does HB 7069 do?

There is not the space here to go through every policy contained within the bill, but here are a few of the lowlights.

In 2015, the Associated Press reported that around $70 million in taxpayer money since 2000 had gone to capital funding for charters but was never recovered by the state when these schools failed.

Instead of addressing this issue, for the first time HB 7069 would allow charters to tap into local capital funding that has become vital to school districts as Republicans in Tallahassee have choked off those dollars to public schools. Keep in mind, when charters wanted to first open in Florida, they promised that they would never ask for public capital funding. Instead, profiteers will have greater access to taxpayer dollars under HB 7069.

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Our underpaid teachers? Instead of the across-the-board raises they deserve, they'll get an expansion of a bonus system based on standardized test scores from when they were in high school. Not only does this system have no basis in research, it unfairly penalizes our most experienced teachers who have dedicated their lives to the profession.

In a further attack on our educators, another proposal that will make it harder to retain our highest-performing teachers was inserted into HB 7069 despite being voted down in a Senate committee.

That's not how this process is meant to work.

In a year when we were promised unprecedented transparency, we've instead been given a bill crafted in secret that will weaken our public education system.

It is my hope that Gov. Rick Scott will veto HB 7069 on behalf of every Floridian concerned with the direction of public education in our state.

If all of these proposals are as good as the charter proponents claim they are, let's come back next year and vet them properly through the committee process where public input can be gathered in the sunshine as our state's Constitution intended.

Or better yet, let's come back next year and focus on improving public education in Florida for the first time in 20 years.

State Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, is the House Democratic leader. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.