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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