A bill targets the charter inequities wrought by political compromise
Maybe now’s not the time for charter schools in Florida to ask for parity in funding, but it’s unlikely that a move to seek local revenues from school districts would be welcome in even the best of times.
The passions stirred by a legislative effort in the Sunshine State to direct local tax revenues to charter schools show just how hard it is for charters to find equity in school systems that rely on property taxes to fund most of their needs. A Florida senate bill would make it mandatory for districts to share as much as $140 million in local tax revenues with charters on a per-pupil basis for construction and renovation. State law currently allows districts to voluntarily share that money. Not surprisingly, few volunteer.
A senate education committee passed the bill recently along party lines, and the reaction from school districts and newspaper editorial boards was apoplectic. “Wait. Rewind,” read the Orlando Sentinel editorial page. “Didn’t charter school prophets pledge to do more with less? Wasn’t less regulation supposed to deliver greater efficiency?”
The charter school must pledge to do more while others determine how much less it’ll get.
Yet it’s the charter school that must pledge to do more while others determine how much less it’ll get. A report released last week from Florida TaxWatch, an independent think tank and government watchdog, found that the state’s 517 charter schools perform their work with about 70 cents on every public school dollar. Some charters are able to access the state capital outlays that districts receive to pay for new buildings and building repair, but those charters only get about 40 percent of what districts get.
But the root of the disparity can be found in the funding formula that leaves Florida charters far from alone in state-by-state comparisons. Indeed, the Fordham Institute found in a 2005 report on the charter school funding gap that the disparity worsens in states that rely more on local sources of revenue. Additionally, a team of researchers at Ball State University in 2010 found that charter schools in only 15 states had access to local funds. Just 12 states gave charters access to facilities funding.
Perhaps districts in Florida and elsewhere can be forgiven for being a little possessive in recent years. Florida Gov. Rick Scott wants $1 billion back into public education, but that would just replenish the cuts the Legislature made to schools last year. The state’s superintendents association has aggressively fought against the local revenue sharing plan, telling the senate education committee that it has hardly anything left to share.
But the question remains: To whom does local funding belong – the district or the student? Stephen Wise, the Florida senate bill sponsor and chairman of the Education Committee, told critics, “They’re all our kids, and they’re all public school kids, and I think they’re not getting their fair share of things they need.” That echoes Fordham’s own approach, which considers that local taxes assessed for education “belong” to the child, not the school board:
If, under a duly enacted state policy, families choose to send their children to public charter schools, it’s only fair for all of their funding to “follow” them there. Any other policy treats some public school students differently from others and is thus unfair.
Wise’s legislation gets us closer to that position, despite the insistence of the Miami Herald editorial page, which proclaimed today that the bill would let charters “steal limited resources from those struggling public schools.” Absent such a policy, TaxWatch recommends that Florida, for one, allow charter schools to be their own local education agencies to remove their dependency on districts for federal and state funds. As in many states, only Florida school boards may authorize charter schools.
In Florida, at least, who controls the power to authorize charter schools may be a constitutional battle to fight another time. For now, allowing local dollars to follow local students will go a long way to overcoming the political compromises that leave too many inequities in public education.
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About the Editor
Director, Program on Parental Choice
Adam Emerson is the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s school choice czar, directing the Institute’s policy program on parental choice and editing the Choice Words blog. He coordinates the Institute’s school choice-related research projects, policy analyses and commentaries on issues that include charter schools and public school choice along with school vouchers, homeschooling and digital learning.
May 16, 2013
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