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Monday, May 5, 2014

The ugly truth behind school choice in Florida

By Diane Schrier from the Ocala Star banner

Choice in education. It’s been raised lately as a holy grail by some, but the truth is far deeper and uglier. There is no real choice anymore in education. Instead, small groups of charter and private schools are being lavishly gifted with a large proportion of the money.

The victims are clear. They are the students and the adults in the community who have to pay more because funds are being handed out to corporations, hedge funds, real estate agencies and other interest groups, ignoring the fact that the education bucket is not limitless, or just not caring about the consequences. But what is choice? If it were simple, there would be no discussion. Most feel that parents have the right to choose what school their children go to. However, the real issues involve money, influence, money, accountability, money, safe schools, money and transparency.

What it does not involve are people yelling out one word, as though it was a religious cause, without 
understanding the complex issues that underlie it. This is a multi-billion dollar issue.

Education serves children. They are not data numbers, but living, breathing humans who deal with all the pressures of the adult world, but without the ability to control more than a few aspects of their lives. The educational system is meant to help them grow to adulthood with the ability to have healthy, strong futures. The Florida Constitution states plainly that a free, strong, high-quality public education is a Florida value.

Charter schools are a great money-making arena. Originally designed as places for alternative education for those who needed special help or a different type of school, the idea was excellent and far-reaching. These schools, mostly run by the school districts, have transparency and accountability and are necessary factors in education today. Money is earmarked for them, but they are district schools and serve a need.

There is a second type of charter school. These are for-profit and they tell a different story. They are for-profit ventures to make money for their investors.

A few are excellent and fill a niche. However, twice as many charter schools fail as do public schools. They also have very interesting schemes to increase the bottom line. One large Florida group, owned by a real estate firm, has the schools rent their land from the firm. The real estate firm also formed its own charter management organization to run the schools. Leases run approximately 20-25 percent of educational revenue, while the management firm receives $450 per student to manage the student. These are noneducational expenses.

This one firm also has its own bank to lend its schools money, which must be repaid with interest. To ensure its protection, the brother-in-law of the owner is in the Legislature and has a say on educational policy. While other charter school organizations are not quite so blatant, they are just as hungry for public taxpayer money.

Last February, I attended a State Board of Education meeting. Lawyers from the Seminole and Orange school boards asked the members to deny the applications for charter schools from the Charter School Organization. The applications had been denied the previous fall by the school boards. The charter schools appealed to the Charter School Organization, which approved the charters, overriding the desires of the local school districts.

Marion County has been lucky so far, as we’ve managed to be able to keep out most of these organizations through implementation of special programs when needed. However, that will change this year. A new application form has been approved by the Legislature streamlining the process for charter schools. This opens up Marion County, since the power to say no will be further diminished. State superintendents have been protesting this.

Thus, for-profit charter schools get Race to the Top money for starting new schools, management money, lease money, interest money, student money and PECO funds. PECO funds are designated for maintenance and operations of public schools. During the last four years, however, all of this money has gone to charter schools. This year, more PECO money is going to private schools than public schools — again.

Private-school vouchers are being funded by money donated to one single organization called Step Up for Children. To increase private-school revenue, corporations that donated money to the fund are being given tax credits equal to their donation. Since Florida does not have an income tax, these taxes are a large part of the basis of education, public safety and all other programs. This law will raise close to $1 billion per year over the next few years — money that will be taken from public school funding. While some private schools, especially in Marion County, are excellent, others are in strip malls, offer minimal education, untrained teachers, no trained personnel for special needs, and no accountability or transparency.

There is school choice and there is the destruction of public education choice. The Florida Legislature is choosing to move down the path of destruction. However, most children attend public schools. Voters will need to make a decision.

Diane Schrier is a teacher at Fort King Middle School, a candidate for the School Board and state public policy chairwoman for The American Association of University Women.

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