Editorial: Corcoran's schools of false hope

House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O' Lakes sees more charter schools as the answer to Florida's failing public schools.
House Speaker Richard Corcoran of Land O' Lakes sees more charter schools as the answer to Florida's failing public schools.
Published April 24, 2017

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran wants to spend big money to move struggling students from Failure Factories to Schools of Hope. That's a slick pitch, but it would further starve traditional public schools to finance privately run charter schools that often are no better at teaching kids in poor neighborhoods. This is another power play by conservative Republicans to dismantle public education, not to help children succeed.

$200 MILLION FIX?: House Republicans want to bring charter schools to students in 'failure factories'

The Schools of Hope legislation (HB 5105) has passed the House and is a top priority for Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican whose wife founded a Pasco County charter school their children attend. The goal is to attract nonprofits that operate successful charter schools elsewhere to open schools in impoverished Florida neighborhoods where traditional public schools have been failing. To get their attention, the House would give the charters the sun and the moon: $200 million to finance buildings with low-interest loans, cover operations and other costs — plus more flexibility to operate with little or no input from local school districts.

Even that may not be enough. Some charters say their business models are not based on quickly turning around failing schools. Or they could not immediately accommodate every student. Or they are wary of being viewed as unwelcome outsiders. Those warning flags should make the Senate pause, yet Corcoran declares in a television interview: "They're all going to come.''

The arguments for this giveaway don't hold up. Republicans contend students need more choices. But Florida already is a national leader in school choice, from magnets to fundamental schools to charters to Opportunity Scholarships for low-income students at private schools. A new state law also allows students to move across county lines to attend any public school that has room. Pinellas County ranks in the top 10 nationally for its menu of choices, and Hillsborough County's charter enrollment continues to grow at a rate of 1,350 students a year.

Republicans also argue that improving struggling schools is not about spending more money. That is untested in Florida, where state legislators ignore "the paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children'' as the Florida Constitution requires. The state ranks near the bottom nationally in per-student spending, uses revenue from the state lottery to supplant rather than enhance education spending and fails to adequately invest in pre-K programs. Legislators also have steered construction and maintenance money away from traditional public schools and toward privately run charters. Now they want to require a portion of local property tax money for public school construction to be handed to charter schools, without raising the tax rate back to where it was before the recession. Corcoran doesn't even want local school districts to get new money generated by rising property values this year, calling that a tax increase.

Hillsborough County School District chair Cindy Stuart: "They have starved us to a place where that's all they can do is give up on us.''

School districts brought some of this upon themselves by lacking urgency in improving struggling schools. The Tampa Bay Times "Failure Factories" series in 2015 detailed how the Pinellas School District abandoned integration efforts in 2007 and then failed to follow through with promised resources for five failing south St. Petersburg elementary schools that became predominantly poor and black. In the past two years, superintendent Mike Grego has brought in new principals, more veteran teachers, new teaching methods, longer school days and other proven methods of helping failing students. Most of those schools are now seeing improved performance in academics, discipline and attendance.

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Corcoran is hijacking the Times' Failure Factories investigation to sell his charter school agenda. Charter schools have a role to play in the mix of education choices, but they are no panacea. In St. Petersburg, at least two failed spectacularly at teaching impoverished students and were forced to close. The Legislature would be smarter to invest $200 million in lifting families out of poverty and adding resources to their public schools than in the House speaker's schools of false hope.