TALLAHASSEE -- After suffering bruising defeats during last year’s Legislative session, charter school advocates have descended upon the capital city with a revamped strategy.
Circle the wagons. Narrow the agenda. And make nice with the school districts.
This year, charter school lobbyists will focus their efforts on winning state money for maintenance and facilities. If they can’t secure the dollars, they want the right to use the empty space in traditional public schools free of charge.
With the state running a surplus, charter school advocates find themselves in a stronger position than last year. They have an all-star lineup of lobbyists, the ear of House Speaker Will Weatherford, and a crop of lawmakers sympathetic to their cause.
But victory isn’t guaranteed, especially with Gov. Rick Scott trying to win over public-school teachers and parents in advance of the 2014 election. The moderate Senate could be an obstacle, too. Rather than vote on any of the charter-school bills, the Senate Education Committee will hold a workshop on the issue Monday, signaling a desire to move forward cautiously.
“It’s all going to depend on the charter schools’ approach,” said Rep. Michael Bileca, R-Miami, who cast a key vote against last year’s pitch for facilities funding. “Last year’s approach wasn’t balanced. If they come at the issue in a fair and thoughtful way, more of us may be willing to consider it.”
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive tax dollars for teacher salaries and educational materials. But unlike traditional public schools, which are run by elected school boards, charter schools are run by nonprofit organizations or private management companies.
In Florida, more than 200,000 students are now enrolled in the semi-private schools, accounting for about 8 percent of total public-school enrollment. But in lean budget times, charter schools have spurred a bitter public-policy battle that has forced districts, superintendents, teachers, union leaders, parents and school management companies to take sides.
The latest clash: funding for facilities.
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools can’t levy taxes for maintenance and construction. (When charters first popped up in Florida in 1996, they promised to do more with less money.) Charter schools asked to share in the tax dollars last year but were rebuffed by lawmakers.
The issue exploded again in January, when the city-run Pembroke Pines Charter School tried to pressure the Broward County School Board to share its money. The Broward board declined.
For the past several years, charters statewide have received some money for infrastructure and repairs, either through the Public Education Capital Outlay fund or through a one-time budget allocation. This year, Scott is proposing $100 million.
But Rep. Janet Adkins, a Fernandina Beach Republican and chair of the House K-12 education subcommittee, is sponsoring a bill that would require the state to designate recurring revenue for charter-school construction and maintenance and increase accountability.
“I’m not looking for 1:1 parity,” Adkins told The Herald/Times. “But I don’t think public charter schools should be funded at the current levels. That disparity is too large.”
The charter school lobby considers the bill among its top priorities. “What we’re asking for is demand-driven funding,” said former state Rep. Ralph Arza, who now lobbies for the Florida Charter School Alliance.