Once again legislators are looking for ways to undermine Florida's public school system by giving more taxpayer dollars and freebies to charter schools, including those run by for-profit management companies. At a time when school district budgets remain squeezed for cash, two House bills would give charter schools more opportunities while undercutting traditional public schools where most Florida students attend. Public schools are bought with public money, and they should not be given away to schools operated by private interests.
The bills would turn on its head the notion of charters as alternative schools with considerable autonomy in exchange for less district support. Instead of being outside the system, charter schools would gain favored status yet still lack taxpayer accountability. One bill, HB 7009, would require districts to give unused school space to charters for free, or only for maintenance costs. And HB 1267 would guarantee that charters receive about $1,200 per elementary student — and more for high school students — for construction and maintenance from general revenue dollars when the Legislature has now failed for two years to invest construction and renovation dollars for public schools.
The Legislature should end its fixation with charter schools as the answer to all that ails Florida's school performance. Some charter schools are successful, but many aren't. Stanley D. Smith, a professor of finance at the University of Central Florida, has done an analysis, controlling for poverty and minority characteristics of elementary schools, that shows "we should question the state's increasing emphasis on charter schools because as a group they underperform traditional public schools." He also studied high school test scores and, using the same methodology, found that charters and traditional schools performed the same.
If a charter wants to use an old public school property, it should do what is happening in Pinellas County. University Preparatory Academy, a charter school, is negotiating with the Pinellas School Board to buy the former home of Southside Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg's Midtown neighborhood. If the two parties work out a deal based on fair market values, both sides win.
The Senate still has time to get this right. Education Committee Chairman John Legg, R-Lutz, should understand the conflict better than most lawmakers when it comes to the difference between public schools heavily regulated by the Legislature and charters. He is the co-founder and business administrator of Dayspring Academy, a 12-year-old nonprofit charter in Port Richey. As a legislator, he has a responsibility to ensure that public schools are adequately financed. An open spigot to less-regulated charters — when public schools have been shortchanged — is not in his constituents' interests.
Gov. Rick Scott, with his newfound interest for public education and teachers, should tell legislative leaders that traditional public schools must come first and that charter schools, while they are here to stay, should not be getting guaranteed tax dollars every year to build and maintain schools that are run by people who don't answer directly to the voters.