Under the guise of school choice, the Florida House is pushing ahead with three bad bills that would benefit charter schools and yet again damage traditional public schools. The priorities are upside-down, and the Senate should stick up for local control and a fairer distribution of tax money to public education.
The first example of top-down mismanagement is HB 873, which would allow the state to limit how much local school districts could spend on capital costs even if they use money approved by their local taxpayers, such as a sales tax. Using cherry-picked numbers and questionable interpretations, House Education Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican with close financial and family ties to the charter school industry, claims school districts have "glaringly and grossly" overspent on construction in the past decade. Pasco County, correctly, pushed back hard. "At the risk of sounding combative … we have gone to great lengths to be very conservative with construction of our schools," said Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning. Pasco officials point out that the House data sheet neglects projects that came in under budget and misconstrues per-pupil costs for such facilities as automotive labs, which require a great deal of floor space for a relatively small number of students.
The bill, now headed to the full House, could force districts to give some local property tax money to charter schools, which are privately managed though they receive public money. Thank goodness the Senate has different ideas. Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the education budget chair, offers a saner alternative that could limit charter schools' potential funding and give priority to charters that help primarily low-income students or those with disabilities. "We want to weight it in favor of those charter schools who have a social conscience," he said. His plan still would unfairly hamstring public capital spending, but at least it's a starting point for a better discussion.
Then there is a second power grab in a constitutional amendment headed to the full House, HJR 759. It would bypass local school districts, which currently approve charter schools, by setting up a statewide entity with authority to approve charters anywhere in the state. This would allow charter applicants to shop around for the friendliest forum even though they already have a near rubber-stamp process to open now. The amendment would need 60 percent approval in both chambers to be placed on the November ballot, where voters would then have to kill this pre-emption of local authority.
The third bad bill is HB 669 by Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor. The bill, which passed the House Thursday, would, incredibly, allow students to apply for an open seat in any public school anywhere in Florida. This would not benefit poor students by allowing them to escape underperforming schools. The highest-performing schools won't have openings, and students at low-performing schools won't have transportation to make their way to a better school even if a seat is available. This is a not terribly subtle plan to undermine the integrity of school districts by scrambling their per-pupil funding calculations without offering real relief to the students who need better schools.
Charter schools are not the answer to every question in education. And for all the outsized attention the Legislature gives them, it's worth remembering that while charter schools serve about 250,000 students in Florida, nearly 10 times more pupils — 2.4 million — attend conventional public schools. A few years ago, Stanley D. Smith, a professor of finance who recently retired from the University of Central Florida, analyzed charter school performance in Florida. He controlled for poverty and race in elementary schools and found that "we should question the state's increasing emphasis on charter schools because as a group they underperform traditional public schools."
There are good charter schools, but there are also many weak ones. Where is the evidence, assumed in all of the proposed legislation, that they regularly outperform traditional public schools? At the very least, they should be held to the same standards and accountability as regular public schools rather than being used as yet another tool to dismantle Florida's public education system.