Florida budget pits charters against mainstream schools

Florida budget pits charters against mainstream schools

(Fla.) Representatives of the state’s traditional public schools have mounted an aggressive lobbying campaign aimed at getting Gov. Rick Scott to veto the budget bill approved by the Legislature earlier this month.

Although the lack of adequate funding remains a central theme, the big issue with the spending plan and its related trailer bills is how lawmakers are promoting charter schools.

There’s $140 million set aside to encourage charter operators to open facilities adjacent to the state’s lowest performing schools in an effort to promote competition. There’s also a provision that critics say restricts the authority of local districts to deny charter applications, and a mandate that districts give charters a share of their capital outlay dollars.

The big complaint, however, is that a new charter program–called ‘Schools of Hope’—would allow charter schools to hire non-certified personnel for the classroom.

“We find it appalling that the Legislature would consider a gigantic giveaway to charter schools that essentially exempts the charter operators from necessary requirements schools should employ when teaching our children,” said Joanne McCall, president of the Florida Education Association in a statement.

“But the idea that these charters would be allowed to hire individuals who are not certified to teach, not experienced in the classroom and don’t even have a college degree or a high school diploma is simply astounding,” she said.

The boost to charter schools in Florida comes as the Trump administration pushes a similar agenda on the federal level. Last week, the president unveiled a budget plan that called for earmarking $1 billion in Title I money that could be used by parents to pay tuition at private schools. There was also $500 million or a near-doubling in federal support for charters.

The effort to get the Republican Scott to veto HB 7069, the budget bill, would seem like a long shot, given that the Legislature is also dominated by the GOP. But taking on the potentially powerful education community could also prove problematic for the governor too.

Scott, who has 15 days to decide whether to veto or sign the bill, is also all but certain to challenge for one of Florida’s U.S. Senate seats next year, and will need to be careful in this swing state where Donald Trump bested Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election by just 1.3 percent of the vote.

The architects of the $83 billion spending plan noted there are some things that almost everyone supports—including an expanded teacher bonus program and more money for after school programs and heath care services.

There’s also a small increase in overall school spending.

The charter provisions also have supporters.

“HB 7069 is a win for parents because it gives us more options for our children's education and it entrusts us, not bureaucrats, to make these decisions for our children,” Carmen Potter, the Florida chapter spokeswoman for PublicSchoolOptions.org, which advocates for public school options like charter and magnet schools, said in a statement. “After all, we know them best.”

But Malcolm Thomas, president of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents argued that there were too many things wrong with the budget plan.

For one, the increase in per-student spending of $24.49 will largely end up being eaten up by enrollment growth and higher pension costs—leaving only about $24 million to improve services.

“School districts are facing increased health care, utility, fuel and other operational costs,” Thomas said in a May 16 letter to Scott. “When compared to the funding provided in the budget 10 years ago, the essential core of the operating budget remains below pre-recession levels.”