The Florida Legislature allocated public schools a whopping 47 cents more per student for discretionary spending for the upcoming school year. In real terms, considering rising insurance premiums and inflation — that’s a big cut. Last year the school board received a hundred extra dollars per student, which wasn’t enough to provide needed teacher salary increases.
So what does this have to do with approving new charter schools? Well, if you hear a loud leaking sound near your local public school, be alarmed, but don’t be surprised. It’s not a gas leak — it’s the sound of funding being siphoned off to support private school vouchers and public charter schools.
Unfortunately, for every charter approved, the District gets poorer and less able to offer new innovative programs and choices for everyone’s children. Leon County has some new attractive programs in the works, but may not be able to afford them if our budget keeps shrinking.
The current local controversy over whether the school board should approve two more charter schools is not about believing in school choice, it’s about survival. In a perfect world where funding is plentiful and the playing field is level, it would be easy to say yes to all kinds of school options. Charters can be good vehicles for meeting parents’ preferences and experimenting with innovative ideas.
However, we are faced with a decision. Can we afford a dual education system when one slowly drains the other, plays by a different set of rules and leaves many children behind?
The Plato Academy charter application is from an out-of-town charter company with an out-of-town school board run by a for-profit management company. There are six of these charter chains in Pinellas County alone.
While they are considered “high-performing” charters, close inspection of Plato Academy student populations in Pinellas County reveal that their enrollment of African American, disabled and low socio-economic students is far below the Pinellas district average (According to the DOE School Public Accountability Reports, 2015-16.)
In this application, no location has been named and we have no assurance that their student population will mirror Leon County. We do know the projected population of 728 students will drain at least $4.5 million dollars per year out of the Leon County school system once it is completely built out.
The proposed Classical Charter model is affiliated with the conservative Hillsdale College in Michigan and is being pushed by powerful politicians around the state. One was just approved in Martin County this week. But, at least this charter application was primarily written by local parents who clearly want this school option for their children.
Unfortunately, the other Hillsdale affiliated Classical charters in Florida also show a disproportionate enrollment of white, non-disabled, middle-class students. Carpooling is the only transportation plan, services for handicapped students are minimally described and no location has been announced. They also project 746 students with a similar $4.5 million funding drain.
What most people don’t realize is that buildings charters lease and improve with tax dollars are not publicly owned. If they fold, as four already have, it’s tax money down the drain. Furthermore, elected school boards have little discretion whether a new charter school is approved or not. If the application meets the mandated criteria, they are difficult to deny. If denied, they can appeal to the State Board of Education.
When school districts have tried to put local requirements in a charter agreement, such as a concrete justification of need, required bus transportation, a reflective student body, or location in an impoverished area, rules have been tightened to disallow restrictions.
The charter school contract no longer allows districts to add any conditions that the applicants don’t agree to. If the new proposal from the Constitutional Revision Commission passes, school boards will be bypassed completely.
By not recommending the two currently proposed charters, Superintendent Hanna is asking the question, “If DOE says that we can’t build a new school because we have plenty of available capacity, how can we authorize two new charter schools for over 1,400 students?”
What if 10 charter proposals were submitted that met the required criteria? Would the School Board have to approve all of them? Maybe so. Where do we draw the line?
All parents want schools that meet the needs of their children. So do we. But when your car tire is leaking and you can’t afford a new car, you fix the tire first. You don’t buy a shiny new car.
Both proposals have interesting elements and I hope Leon County Schools can incorporate some of them into our existing public schools. But that takes resources, and 47 cents just won’t cut it.
Rosanne Wood was a principal for 32 years and now serves on the Leon County School Board.