The Florida Influencer Series

Florida must prioritize public schools over charter schools, influencers say

More from the series

The Florida Influencers Series

This election year, the Miami Herald, the Bradenton Herald and El Nuevo Herald are driving a conversation on the important issues facing our state. We’ve assembled a panel of 50 influential Floridians to offer their views.

Charter schools play an important role in Florida’s education system but should not be prioritized over traditional public K-12 schools, according to a panel of the state’s leading voices.

In a new survey of the Florida Influencers, a group of prominent political and policy figures from across the state, a majority (77 percent) said they support a recent Florida Supreme Court decision removing a ballot measure that would have eased the path for creating new charter schools. And a plurality (46 percent) said it was “not important at all” for the next governor and legislature to expand the number charter schools in Florida.

Still, many of the Influencers said lawmakers should work to improve the 646 charter schools currently operating in the state, as long as those efforts do not jeopardize other public schools, to deliver the best outcomes for Florida students.

“Charter schools empower parents with school choice and can also be hubs of experiential learning and innovation,” said Fabiola Fleuranvil, the CEO of Blueprint Creative Group. “However, public school funding and transforming the current delivery of education should remain top priority, and the expansion of charter schools should be balanced against prioritizing public school funding.’’

“I do believe children should have choices through magnets, academy programs and qualified non-profit charter schools, but not at the expense of a public, non-profit education,” added Susan Towler, the vice president of the Florida Blue Foundation. “I’m concerned we are disassembling public education with ‘death by 1,000 cuts.’”

In the run-up to the November elections, the Florida Influencers will share their ideas on how to address the most pressing policy concerns facing the state and respond to questions from readers of the Miami Herald, Bradenton Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

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According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 10 percent of Florida’s eligible public school students attended charter schools, which receive taxpayer funding but are privately operated, as of the 2015-2016 school year. That was the sixth highest enrollment rate in the nation.

A measure that would have transferred control over charter schools from local school boards to the state government would likely have helped to increase those figures. But in a 4-3 decision earlier this month, Florida’s high court struck Amendment 8 from the November ballot, saying it was misleading because it did not state its true purpose and did not specifically mention charter schools.

While most of the Influencers applauded that decision, some thought expanding charter schools should be a priority for Florida after the 2018 elections. In the survey, 37 percent said that goal was “important” or “slightly important,” while 17 percent said it was “very important” or “fairly important.”

“Charter schools are an answer to the failure of some school systems,” said Mike Fernandez, the chairman of MBF Healthcare Partners. “We can’t condemn our children because of an agenda to protect what does not work.”

The future of these schools in the state will be in large part determined by the successor to GOP Gov. Rick Scott, who is a charter proponent. Republican candidate Ron DeSantis is pro-school choice, while Democratic candidate Andrew Gillum has spoken out strongly against charter schools.

“Charter schools serve an important role in the educational fabric of our state,” said Leigh-Ann Buchanan, the executive director, Venture Café Miami. “While they often fill gaps in equal access, efficacy, achievement and opportunity, any expansion of charter schools must be balanced with ensuring the existing public school system is adequately resourced and with a wholistic approach that incentives inter-institutional collaboration.”

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Readers who weighed in using the “Your Voice” online tool posed the following question to the Influencers this week: “Why are so many politicians interested in giving money to charter schools and taking money away from Florida public schools that need it more?”

Influencers who are opposed to charter schools said some politicians appear more interested in helping corporations than students.

“If you follow the money and these lawmakers you will notice many of them or their family members benefit from charter schools,” said Joanne McCall, President, Florida Education Association. “They have a clear conflict of interest but vote on these measures anyway. It appears the goal is not one of help but to profit off our students.”

Charter school supporters, however, argued that Florida’s conventional K-12 education system isn’t meeting the need of students, so alternatives are necessary.

“Charter Schools are ‘public schools,’ but they allow innovation better than conventional public schools who often are trapped in mediocrity because of too often the teachers’ unions only look out for their self interests and not the interest of the child,” said Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.

Regardless of motive, Carol Probstfeld, the president of the State College of Florida, Manatee Sarasota, stressed that any schools that receive government funding must be held to the same standards of accountability.

“Charter schools provide parents with alternatives to their local public schools,” Probstfeld said. “Choice can inspire positive competition.”

The Influencers were again asked how well they think candidates running for office are focusing on policy solutions. With seven weeks to go until the midterms, here’s how they responded:

  • Very well: 0 percent

  • Fairly well: 15 percent

  • Somewhat well: 51 percent

  • Slightly well: 32 percent

  • Not all well: 2 percent

  • Too early to say: 0 percent

This is the eighth of a series of surveys the Miami Herald will conduct with 50 Influencers through the November elections to help focus media and candidate discussion around the policy issues of most importance to Floridians. Look for the next report on Sept. 24 when Influencers will talk about marijuana policy in Florida. Share your thoughts and questions about the state’s important policy challenges and solutions here.

For more reaction from our Influencers on charter schools, look for their quotes on Tuesday’s Opinion page.

George Haj contributed reporting.

Adam Wollner: 202-383-6020, @AdamWollner