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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Florida Legislature puts another knife in the back of public education

From the St. Petersburg Times editorial staff

For two decades, the Florida Legislature has claimed the expansion of charter schools does not steal resources from public schools that serve most students. But lawmakers can no longer make that claim. A new state law and the 2011-12 budget significantly tilt the balance away from public schools to favor charters, their limited constituency and the people and companies that profit from them.

The law makes it dramatically easier for "high-performing" charter schools to expand or start additional schools anywhere in the state, where they will compete against public schools for students and dollars. The schools must have at least two A's and one B under the state grading formula in the past three years to be deemed "high-performing."

Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers also failed to provide any state money for construction or maintenance for 3,355 traditional public schools, but found about $55 million in taxpayer dollars to offer to operators of the state's 459 privately run charter schools — some of which use for-profit firms to run their schools.

The film Waiting for Superman has popularized the notion that turning public schools over to private providers will fix what's wrong with public education. But as the latest round of Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test scores shows once again, Florida's two-decade experiment with charter schools has yet to prove they do better, on average, than public schools.

This lack of distinction comes despite significant advantages. While some charters serve special-needs kids, they are allowed in some instances to limit whom they admit and expel those who don't pass academic muster. They also are exempt from some regulations such as strict limits on class sizes.

Florida does have highly successful charter schools that consistently post A's under the state's grading system and are most likely to take advantage of the new law. Three in Polk County are named for Republican Rep. Seth McKeel's grandfather, a former school board member. McKeel serves on the schools' boards.

Other powerful lawmakers with charter school ties include two Pasco County Republicans in line to be House speaker: Rep. Richard Corcoran, whose wife has filed to open a charter school in Pasco County next year; and Rep. Will Weatherford, who has agreed to serve on the school's board. The chairman of the House K-20 Education Competitiveness Subcommittee, Miami Rep. Erik Fresen, has a brother-in-law who works for a charter school company serving more than two dozen South Florida schools.

Tampa Democratic Rep. Betty Reed's daughter is a charter school principal. Reed was the only legislator who abstained from voting on SB 1546 citing a conflict of interest.

But high-performing charter schools are the exception, not the rule. Earlier this month, FCAT results showed charter schools accounted for 15 of the state's 31 failing schools, despite making up just 12 percent of all state-financed schools. Charters were also less likely to earn A's, B's and C's.

School districts can shut down poor-performing or poorly run charters. But those fights are not easily waged, and state officials frequently overrule school districts' orders. The new state law will make it even harder to shut some of them down.

Scott and the Legislature have decided is it is more important to give a small fraction of the state's students a choice in education than to invest in public schools that teach the overwhelming share of students. That may be in the interest of some powerful lawmakers or their friends, but its not in the interest of most Floridians.

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