Editorial: Republican legislators insult voters who support public schools

New Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, expressed a tone of cooperation after being sworn in on Nov. 20. SCOTT KEELER | Times
New Florida House Speaker Jose Oliva, R- Miami Lakes, expressed a tone of cooperation after being sworn in on Nov. 20. SCOTT KEELER | Times
Published April 12, 2019

Pinellas County voters reapproved a special property tax in 2016 to improve teacher salaries and arts programs, not to subsidize charter schools. Miami-Dade voters approved a property tax increase last year to raise teacher salaries and hire more school resource officers, not to subsidize charter schools. Yet now Republicans in the Florida Legislature want to change the rules and force local school districts to share money from local tax increases with privately operated charter schools. Their efforts to undermine traditional public schools and ignore the intent of the voters know no boundaries.

Let's check the record. For years, Republicans who control the Legislature have attacked teacher unions as the enemy and complained about under-performing public schools while starving them of financial resources. They would not let local school districts keep additional tax revenue created by rising property values. They gave them little or no money for construction and renovation. And last year, they increased base spending per student by a grand total of 47 cents.

To their credit, local voters stepped up as state legislators consistently failed to fulfill their constitutional responsibility to adequately fund high-quality public schools. Following state funding cuts, Pinellas voters in 2004 approved a special property tax that enhances arts programs, helps retain teachers and outfits schools with new technology. They renewed the tax in 2008, 2012 and 2016, and it is up for renewal in 2020. And now legislators have the audacity to say the school district would have to reduce enhancements paid for by that property tax and divert roughly $2.7 million to charter schools? Enhancements that state legislators should have been paying for with state tax dollars in the first place?

Remember that charter schools were conceived as incubators for experiments, privately established by nonprofits and provided with state tax dollars that follow the students who choose to attend them. Instead, they have become big business for for-profit companies that sign contracts to run them and hire their own staff. Apparently their business model needs another injection of taxpayer money at the expense of the traditional public schools.

The claims by Republican legislators that they are only trying to be fair to all teachers ring hollow. They won't raise taxes, and they won't adequately fund public schools. So voters in county after county agreed to tax themselves to help schools teaching their children in their communities. Those Republican legislators can't stomach that, particularly when they are so busy dismantling the public school system by pushing charter schools and tuition vouchers for private schools under the euphemism of expanding school choice.

That is not an exaggeration. The legislation requiring special school property taxes approved by voters to be shared with charter schools, HB 7123, would affect Pinellas, Miami-Dade, Broward and about a dozen other districts. Last year, voters in another 12 counties also approved local sales tax increases to pay for school construction projects, transportation projects or other infrastructure. Hillsborough voters approved separate sales tax increases for both the public schools and local transportation projects. The Legislature's response?

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The House voted 69-44 largely along partisan lines last week to require future local sales tax increases to be approved by a two-thirds vote instead of a majority vote. Both Hillsborough sales tax referendums and those in eight other counties would have failed last year under the higher requirement in HB 5. So much for local control and self-government.

The message from Republican legislators in Tallahassee could not be clearer. They won't pay for quality public schools, they won't raise taxes — and they don't want voters to do that, either. So after voters in county after county approve tax increases to improve their local schools because legislators won't, the legislators have a cynical response: Change the rules. Force local property tax money to be shared with charter schools. Raise the bar so high that approving local sales tax increases would be next to impossible.

To borrow a phrase from the Republican in the White House, the Republicans in Tallahassee are rigging the system.