Want your kids in the best public schools? Wealthy cities look to buy a way in

The city of Coral Gables is considering spending $4.2 million to purchase seats for residents at West Lab, a popular magnet school that is currently open to anyone in Miami-Dade. Coral Gables wouldn't be the first wealthy city in South Florida to use money and influence to shape local public school options.
The city of Coral Gables is considering spending $4.2 million to purchase seats for residents at West Lab, a popular magnet school that is currently open to anyone in Miami-Dade. Coral Gables wouldn't be the first wealthy city in South Florida to use money and influence to shape local public school options.

Henry S. West Laboratory is the kind of school every parent wants their kid to attend.

Nestled in a lush green patch in Coral Gables, the public K-8 center better known as West Lab boasts a German language program, a middle school curriculum focused on science and math, and a partnership with the University of Miami’s School of Education.

It’s so popular that there are nearly 400 students on the waiting list — more than the school’s entire population. But although West Lab is located in Coral Gables, it’s a magnet school, meaning that anyone in the county can apply.

That’s why the city of Coral Gables is considering paying $4.2 million to create seats just for the children of residents. The money would pay for extra classrooms to accommodate about 180 students, who would be mixed in with the rest of the student body. For a one-time fee of roughly $23,000 per student slot, Coral Gables residents would be guaranteed the slots in perpetuity.

The proposal would help fill a need for more spaces at high-quality schools, city officials and residents say. It’s something other cities in Miami-Dade — many of them affluent have also done to create more local public school options, pitching in millions of dollars to pay for extra seats at popular magnet schools or to fund advanced programs. Some cities have even created their own municipal charter schools.

But some of the municipal investments could make Miami-Dade schools more segregated along racial and economic lines, experts say — and divert money from other nearby public schools.

“I understand that parents want more options, but at the same time it does create these disparities, and it is often wealthier communities that do this,” said Osamudia James, a Coral Gables resident and law professor at the University of Miami who specializes in education issues. “It’s absolutely true that it’s going to aggravate segregation.”

School Board member Steve Gallon shares similar concerns, saying in an email that such proposals “could result in the creation of systems and structures that could impede such access to poor children and those of color to a world-class education based on their ZIP codes.”

Fewer poor students

Take MAST Academy on Virginia Key, for example, a popular science and technology magnet school that draws students from across the county. The Village of Key Biscayne paid about $10 million to expand the school in 2012 in exchange for first dibs for residents at two new academies within the school.

The deal was controversial at the time because some students and teachers felt the district was selling seats to Key Biscayne. They worried that guaranteeing spots for village residents would change the school’s culture.

If nothing else, the investment certainly changed MAST’s demographics. The proportion of low-income students fell by half, from 37 percent of the student body in 2012 to about 19 percent during the most recent school year, according to state data. The percentage of black students also decreased, from almost 10 percent of the student body in 2012 to less than 3 percent this year, school district data shows. The overall proportion of minority students dipped only slightly because of an increase in the percentage of Hispanic students.

Other cities have opted to open their own charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately managed.

Miami Shores was one of the first places in Florida to create its own municipal charter school, approving a $5 million bond in 2003 to build Doctors Charter School for residents in grades 6-12.

The result: Just two percent of Doctors Charter students are low-income, according to state data. Before the charter school was created, the neighborhood public high school options for Miami Shores residents were North Miami and Edison high schools, where at least 90 percent of the student body is poor.

Doctors Charter offers the kind of education students could expect at a private school. More than half of the teachers have a master’s degree or higher, according to the school website, and students can choose from advanced computer science courses and the types of literature classes you might find at a liberal arts college.

Further north, the city of Aventura runs its own K-8 charter school, known as ACES. Aventura is currently in the process of opening a new charter high school — something parents, local politicians and business groups have been advocating for years. They argue that Dr. Michael Krop Senior High School in north Miami-Dade, the public high school serving Aventura residents, is too far away for some families.

Aventura residents will get first dibs at the new high school, which is slated to open in 2019. Although other county residents will be able to apply for empty seats, city manager Eric Soroka said that based on interest from residents, he doesn’t think there will be any.

Instead, some area residents are concerned that the charter high school could segregate the area, pulling affluent Aventura residents out of Krop along with the added resources, like fundraising contributions, that wealthy students tend to bring with them.

“Personally, I think there’s a benefit to having a diverse school population so that especially high school-aged kids can become friends with kids from other ethnicities,” said Aventura resident Ivy Ginsberg. “By saying that all the slots are going to go to Aventura residents only, it’s like giving Aventura residents their own private school.”

Soroka said that’s not the city’s intention. “The only thing we’re providing is another educational choice for our residents at this point,” he said.

A ‘win-win’ for residents

School districts are under a lot of pressure to keep wealthy families in the public school system because these families typically have other options. For every child that leaves the school system, the district loses money.

“Wealthier parents get to use their market power to create more choices for themselves,” said James, the UM law professor. “The bargain we make with wealthier parents to keep them from leaving and going to private schools is we give them these options and opportunities and they’re supposed to stay, but in exchange for staying they hoard resources.”

School districts also face stiff competition from charter schools, and many have created specialized programs like magnets in an effort to keep students, said Elena Silva, the director of the Pre-K-12 education policy program at New America, a D.C.-based think tank. This is especially true in Miami-Dade, where enrollment in charter schools has more than tripled over the past 10 years. In response, the school district has created more than 500 so-called choice programs, which include both magnet schools and specialized programs within neighborhood schools — everything ranging from forensic science and conservation biology to international finance and robotics.

But ensuring equal access to magnet schools can be difficult, Silva said, because low-income students often struggle to find transportation if the schools are far from their homes.

“One of the biggest issues with these choice programs writ large is the question about whether everybody has equal access,” she said. “If you’re putting magnet programs in wealthy communities and then you’re reserving seats at that school, is that helping to address the inequities in the county?”

District officials said Miami-Dade has made an effort to create choice programs across the county to ensure students in low-income neighborhoods have access to the specialized programs.

And from the school district’s perspective, collaboration with city governments helps raise much-needed funds.

“It’s a win-win for our community and our residents,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, who oversees the school district’s office of intergovernmental affairs. “You have two government agencies come and leverage resources, providing more access to communities.”

Mendez-Cartaya disagrees with critics who say that creating extra seats at magnet schools for some residents could have a negative impact. She emphasized that proposals like the one in Coral Gables aren’t taking away seats from anyone else. “That’s what the discussion is about, adding to and not carving out from the existing” school, she said.

The collaboration doesn’t always involve paying for seats at magnet schools. Sometimes cities just want to invest in their neighborhood schools.

Sunny Isles Beach financed a $4 million expansion at Norman S. Edelcup/Sunny Isles Beach K-8 Center in 2011, for example, and Miami Beach has pitched in for programs at its public schools, including rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

And it’s not just the wealthy areas that have teamed up with the school district. Homestead’s redevelopment agency helped pay to transform West Homestead Elementary into a K-8 center, and Miami Gardens is in the process of creating a science and math center near Carol City Middle School.

$1 billion in school taxes

In some parts of the country, cities run their own school districts. This can lead to vastly different schools in neighboring cities because the amount collected from property taxes — the main source of local funding for public schools — varies from place to place.

That’s one argument in favor of countywide school districts, like the ones in Florida, said Mike Griffith, a school finance expert at the Education Commission of the States. “One of the benefits of having a county-wide district is that you can share your resources,” he said. “But the negative is you’re sharing your resources.”

At a June meeting in Coral Gables to discuss the possibility of paying for extra seats at West Lab, Mayor Raúl Valdés-Fauli pointed out that the city contributes $1 billion in taxes to the school district every decade — about $100 million a year.

“I am very wary of the seriousness of the school district in dealing with Coral Gables because they think we are filthy rich and we deserve to give and not to get back what belongs to us and to seek school places for our kids,” Valdés-Fauli said.

The details of a possible agreement with the school district are still under negotiation, and city officials are considering other options, said Gables Commissioner Patricia Keon. “I think we need to look at where do we get the most for our money, and if it turns out to be a charter, maybe we need to think that way, too,” she said.

Coral Gables has discussed the possibility of paying for seats at West Lab since at least 2015 and has held several meetings to get input from residents. Keon said more input is needed before the city votes on any proposals.

Some residents say they hope Coral Gables will work out a deal in time for their children to attend West Lab.

“They have an excellent language component,” said Carmen Manrara Cartaya, a Coral Gables resident who has two preschool-aged children. “In this community of Miami, having a second language is like having an additional degree.”

Manrara Cartaya is among the residents who say there is a need for more seats at top-notch schools like West Lab. “I think one of [Coral Gables’] missing links is having excellent public school education for its residents,” she said. “The parks are great, the downtown is great, the zoning is great, but then there’s this huge gap.”

Of the two neighborhood elementary schools open to Coral Gables students, the one with the highest state grade — Coral Gables K-8 Preparatory Academy — is full, according to district figures. The other school, George W. Carver Elementary, got a B on its state report card and is about 84 percent full. Residents also have access to a limited number of seats at Sunset Elementary, another A school.

“We don’t have enough high-quality elementary school seats for residents within the city of Coral Gables,” said Keon.

West Lab has long been on the cutting edge when it comes to innovations in education. It was the county’s first magnet school, created as a partnership with UM’s School of Education. Last year, the school made headlines for ending mandatory homework. It has also consistently gotten an A on its state report card, a grade that is determined in part by student performance on standardized tests.

“West Lab has always had an amazing reputation,” said principal Barbara Soto Pujadas, adding that parents are also drawn to the school’s small size.

Keeping the balance

At the June meeting in Coral Gables, Samuel Joseph, a consultant who serves as the chair of the city’s School and Community Relations Committee, said residents don’t want to change West Lab’s make-up. “It is absolutely critical that we keep that balance” of children from across the county, he said. “Frankly, the reason West Lab is the excellent school that it is is because it doesn’t serve just one population.”

But if the demographic change at MAST Academy is any indication, keeping the current mix of students at West Lab will likely prove difficult. The school will have around 360 students next year, and Coral Gables has proposed adding 180 residents at some point in the future, meaning that city residents will make up as much as a third of the student body.

The biggest likely change: a smaller percentage of poor kids. Now, the school district reports that about a quarter of West Lab’s students are classified as poor, compared with roughly 8 percent of Coral Gables residents, according to census figures, although they don’t define poverty in exactly the same way. West Lab also has a higher proportion of black and Hispanic students than Coral Gables.

For some critics, the prospect of more affluent communities paying for seats at exclusive schools or running their own charter schools further tips the social scales against poor kids.

“You’re creating an advantage for kids who live in a wealthy area,” said school finance expert Griffith. “The kids you want to help the most are those low-income kids.”

And, he said, wealthy communities are buying seats in premier schools at a bargain one-time price.

Griffith said that according to his calculations, Coral Gables’ proposed $4.2 million contribution would likely only cover the price of constructing the new classrooms and at most a year and a half of the extra costs associating with educating more students. But once the money from the city runs out, “the rest of the people in the school district are on the hook for paying for those wealthy slots for the community,” Griffith said.

Mendez-Cartaya from the school district’s office of intergovernmental affairs disagrees. She said that because most school funding follows the student to whichever school he or she chooses to attend, the extra costs associated with educating more students would be covered by the district’s standard per-pupil funding.

But while the overall amount of funding in the district wouldn’t change, the way the money is distributed would. The magnet school would likely see more funding, while the neighborhood school the child would have attended would see less. That doesn’t include the costs of repairing and, decades from now, perhaps rebuilding the additional classrooms, Griffith said.

“What they are doing is paying a small amount forward and requiring money to come from other people in the district to cover the rest of the costs,” he said.

One possible solution would be for municipalities that want to partner with the school district to share the wealth with schools in other neighborhoods, Griffith said. The school district could require municipalities to use part of their contribution for schools in poor areas, for example, or to expand magnet programs for everyone, without guaranteeing seats for residents, he said.

“I get what the people within the district are saying, which is, ‘We raised the money, we brought it into the district, we deserve something for that,’ ” he said. “But it can quickly create haves and have-nots, and we’ve seen those haves and have-nots divided along racial lines.”

Miami Herald staff writer Lance Dixon contributed to this report.