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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Taxpayers assume risk, little gain for charter schools

Florida has invested heavily in privately run charter schools for years, and the payoff for taxpayers has been uneven at best. Lawmakers should revisit the oversight and funding for these schools.
Published Dec. 24, 2015

Florida has invested heavily in privately run charter schools for years, and the payoff for taxpayers has been uneven at best. While some successful charter schools fill particular needs in local communities, too many have failed and research shows they have not outperformed traditional public schools in the state. Taxpayers also have lost millions in construction costs and other capital investments when charter schools have closed, and state lawmakers should revisit the oversight and funding for these schools.

The state has lost as much as $70 million in money for construction, rent and other costs when charter schools have closed over the last 15 years, a recent Associated Press analysis found. In Broward County, 19 now-closed charter schools received $16.5 million. In Hillsborough County, 17 now-closed charter schools received more than $5.4 million. In Pasco County, three now-closed charter schools received more than $900,000, and in Pinellas County three received almost $550,000. In Miami-Dade County, the Liberty City Charter that Jeb Bush helped establish before he ran for governor in 1998 received more than $1 million in capital money from the state before it closed with financial problems. Why should taxpayers be shouldering such financial risk and eating these losses for privately run schools?

It would be one thing if traditional public schools were flush with cash with no need for new construction or maintenance. In fact, the state's 67 school districts received no new construction money for three years before finally dividing a modest $50 million last year (a handful of rural counties got another $59.7 million). Those facilities are used by more than 2.7 million students, yet far fewer charter schools that served about 230,000 students split $75 million. This year traditional schools and charter schools each received $50 million, and Gov. Rick Scott recommends public schools and charter schools each get $75 million for construction and maintenance for 2016-17. But a 50-50 split of the money is hardly fair. Pinellas County schools alone have more than $400 million in construction and capital needs over the next five years, yet the district has received just $8.1 million in construction and maintenance money from the state over the last five years.

Charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately operated, overall have received more than $760 million from taxpayers for capital costs since 2000, the AP reported. In 2012 and 2013, they got virtually all of the state money for construction and maintenance. Charter school advocates argue that the money is critical to their success, and they point out they do not have the authority to levy local property taxes to pay for those capital costs like school districts can for traditional public schools. But charters are not always small operations. They are often managed by large, for-profit companies such as Charter Schools USA, which won approval from the Hillsborough School Board this fall to run four new schools with up to 4,650 students. Passing through tax dollars for per student funding, paying public money for construction and maintenance, and allowing for less regulation for charter schools where private management companies make a profit at little risk is a pretty sweet deal.

Florida taxpayers will never get back the $70 million lost on construction costs for failed charter schools. At the very least, the state should require that the school building or other capital assets be handed to taxpayers when that happens so at least some of the public's investment can be recovered.

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