Paying Miami teachers more is such a great idea that charter schools want in, too

Many schools in the Miami-Dade County Public School system have changed their outdoor marquees to read “#362 for teachers,” referring to the punch number in favor of a property tax referendum benefiting teacher pay and school safety.
Many schools in the Miami-Dade County Public School system have changed their outdoor marquees to read “#362 for teachers,” referring to the punch number in favor of a property tax referendum benefiting teacher pay and school safety. Screenshot from Twitter

The overwhelmingly approved property tax hike billed as a lifeline to teachers starved for higher pay and an antidote for an underfunded mandate to put sworn officers in schools could now have a third beneficiary: charter schools.

The Florida Charter School Alliance, which has 240 member schools across the state, now wants more than just Superintendent Alberto Carvalho’s promise of “increased consideration” for sharing other dollars allocated for safety and security with charter schools.

The alliance, which includes schools managed by the Miami-based charter conglomerate Academica that circulated critical fliers about the referendum, wants a per-pupil cut of the $232 million the referendum is projected to raise in its first of four years. That includes getting a share of the approximately $200 million specifically earmarked for teachers, who make a median salary of $46,174 in Miami-Dade.

“As an advocate for public charter schools, I have to fight for every single teacher and every single student to get equal funding, and no one should be offended by that objective,” said former Florida legislator Ralph Arza, who now serves as the director of government relations for the alliance.

Arza sent letters to each school board member Tuesday asking for a meeting to discuss “how the recent tax referendum...will be distributed among all of the public school students and teachers in Miami Dade County.” Education Commissioner Pam Stewart, state House Speaker Jose Oliva, state Senate President Bill Galvano, Governor-elect Ron DeSantis, Lt. Governor-elect Jeanette Nunez and members of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation were copied on the letter.

Arza said wiggle room lies in the “vague” ballot language. Unlike similar referendums that passed in Broward and Palm Beach counties, the ballot language the Miami-Dade school district used did not specify that charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, would not benefit. Palm Beach, for example, specifically said that “non-charter” district schools would benefit.

“That vagueness was used and probably helped pass the item,” Arza said. “That vagueness can probably come back and haunt the crafters of the item.”

Carvalho could not be reached for comment.

“Our position has been clear — safety is the only item for consideration where referendum allocation is concerned,” said district spokeswoman Daisy Gonzalez-Diego.

Arza proposed this: The $200 million set aside for teachers could be divvied up on a per-student basis. Divided by a total enrollment of 350,000, including charter school students, a school would get roughly $571 for each student. A school with 1,000 students would get about $571,000 more for teacher salaries, which would be distributed by the charter school’s own board among its teachers.

Or, Arza said, the district could just divide that money among public and charter teachers — around 21,000, he says — to give about $10,000 to each teacher.

Almost one in every five public school students in Miami-Dade County — nearly 68,000 — attends a charter school. Data was not readily available for how many charter school teachers are employed in Miami-Dade or what their average or median salaries are.

Arza suggested amending charter school contracts to reflect the accountability measures put in place so taxpayer dollars are spent wisely.

“Whatever assurances are needed to protect taxpayer dollars, those assurances will be given to the Miami-Dade County School Board,” Arza said. “Not one dollar will go to a management company. The monies will go to teachers and the protection of students. I can’t imagine anybody would be opposed to that.”

Charter schools have thrived in Florida and across the country, in part fueled by anti-union sentiment. While teachers in traditional public schools have their contracts and pay negotiated by a union in annual collective bargaining with the school district, teachers in charter schools have their contracts set with the charter’s own board, without the representation of a union.

Arza’s math would deal quite a blow to traditional public school teachers who were wronged when the district and the union agreed to do away with its grandfathered pay scale in 2015, eliminating thousand-dollar pay raises for teachers. It would also disrupt collective bargaining negotiations, which may resume this week, with the district if they were to now lose about $39 million that had been on the table.

United Teachers of Dade President Karla Hernandez-Mats said she was baffled by Arza’s proposal.

“We are in this situation because of the overfunding of charter schools,” she said. “These are privately operated for-profit schools that the only thing that’s public about them is they get public funding.”

UTD launched its own campaign, A+ Teachers Create A+ Schools, to help pass the referendum. The union’s political action committee also donated more than $42,000 to the cause.

“If the charter school industry really wants money for their schools, let them... do an initiative on the ballot,” she said.

The money raised through the referendum won’t be collected until July. The School Board at its last meeting in November postponed the formation of the oversight committee because it couldn’t agree on which organizations should select the positions of retired police officer and retired teacher.

Arza said the push to compel school districts to share referendum dollars with charter schools could extend beyond Miami-Dade to about 20 other school districts that have passed similar referendums.

“I’m willing to do whatever needs to be done and whatever’s available to me,” he said. “Does that mean letting our legislators know? Yes. Does that mean considering our legal options? Yeah.”

Charter schools are one option in the growing "school choice" movement. Funded by taxpayer money, these schools are growing nationally, though some states have yet to pass related laws. Find out what sets them apart from traditional public and pri

Colleen Wright returned to the Miami Herald in May 2018 to cover all things education, including Miami-Dade and Broward schools, colleges and universities. The Herald was her first internship before she left her hometown of South Miami to earn a journalism degree from the University of Florida.