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Monday, February 27, 2012

Charter schools poised to upsurp local control

From the Ledger

by Zac Anderson

Charter schools would receive more construction money, greater freedom to expand and the ability to take over struggling public schools at the request of parents under two bills still in play as the legislative session winds down.

Conservative education reformers are back in the state Capitol this year with an array of proposals that would strengthen alternatives to Florida's traditional public schools, from more private school vouchers to expanded virtual education programs.

But the bills promoting charter schools are generating the most resistance from public school districts.

After years of budget cuts, many district leaders oppose the plan to share property tax collections for building and maintenance programs with charter schools. Legislation that would allow a majority of parents to shut down a traditional public school and reopen it as a charter has drawn intense debate.

Supporters of both bills say they are designed to give families more education options.

"Whether it is a traditional public school or a charter school our children deserve the absolute best from us," said Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, who is sponsoring the parent bill.

Labeled the "Parent Empowerment" act, Benacquisto's legislation is being criticized by teachers unions and district officials, who argue it could spark conflicts between parents and teachers.

In addition to allowing parent petitions for conversion to a charter school, the bill gives parents the right to immediately review a teacher's most recent performance evaluation. It also forces districts to ensure that students do not have a low-performing teacher in consecutive years.

The legislation only applies to public schools with exceptionally low student performance year after year. Federal law already permits charter school conversions, but school districts almost never pursue the option when developing improvement plans for struggling schools.

"We're just allowing parents to join the dialogue and have more say in that decision," Benacquisto said.

Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow described the bill as "the camel's nose under the tent" for charter school companies to initiate takeovers of traditional public schools.

In California, where the legislation already has been adopted, charter school operators have flooded neighborhoods with advertisements pushing school conversions, Pudlow said.

"This has nothing to do with parent involvement and everything to do with turning over schools to for profit charter school companies," he said. "It gives the charter school folks a blueprint on how they can take over public schools. It may start out with chronically failing schools but it could quickly expand to any school."

Pudlow pointed to Florida's corporate tax-credit vouchers as an education reform that rapidly expanded beyond its original goal. The amount of corporate taxes diverted statewide to private school vouchers for low-income students was capped at $50 million when the program began in 2002.

Lawmakers have repeatedly raised the cap. Benacquisto is sponsoring another $31 million increase this year, pushing the voucher program up $250 million in diverted tax revenue.

The voucher expansion will allow 6,500 students to transfer out of public schools, shrinking their budgets.

At the same time, school districts are fighting legislation forcing them to turn over local property tax collections to charter schools.

Charter schools already receive public funding on a per-student basis from the state. Last year lawmakers allocated $55 million in state funds to charter school construction without providing any construction money to traditional public schools.

But the largest pot of construction cash comes from local property taxes that districts are loath to share, especially after years of declining tax collections that put many building projects on hold.

"We have tremendous needs we've put off because of the downturn in the economy," said Joy Frank, a lobbyist for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents.

"We have maintenance and repair needs we're letting go. We really can't afford further cuts."

Charter school advocates say the issue is about fairness.

School officials staged a rally outside the Capitol last week with lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott to make a final push for the legislation.

"We have to remember the charter schools are government-funded schools; they're no different than traditional public schools in that manner," Scott said at the rally.

"We've got to make sure they're properly funded."

Sarasota County is one of only three school districts that voluntarily agreed to share property tax money with local charter schools this year, according to a Department of Education analysis.

The district turned over more than $2 million.

The other 41 counties with charter schools would lose $140 million under the proposed legislation.

That includes $3.1 million in Manatee County and $332,861 in Charlotte County.

The legislation also allows charter school operators with a strong track record to open three new schools each year without seeking school district approval.

Charter school officials often complain that school boards drag their feet on approving new applications without justification.

Taken together, Pudlow said the proposals will allow charter schools to "mushroom" across Florida with little oversight.

"Everything in the world is going to charter schools," he said.

Even some lawmakers who strongly support education reform have reservations about some of the ideas in play. Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he is not sold on giving charter schools local property tax dollars.

The future House speaker is working "behind the scenes" to explore different funding options for charter school construction.

But Weatherford said lawmakers are mostly on the right track with the education proposals up for debate this year.

"We're just kind of continuing to go down the road of the Jeb Bush education reforms that started back in 1998," he said.

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