Florida Charter Schools Bill Sparks Controversy
BY Roxanne Minott
A controversial schools bill has attracted much criticism and dissent across the state of Florida, with Governor Rick Scott refusing to accept arguments from supporters of traditional public schools. Prior to signing the bill at Morning Star Catholic School in Orlando, Governor Scott said that every child in Florida will have access to a good quality education. Other advocates of the bill who accompanied Governor Scott were House Speaker Richard Corcoran, (R)-Land O’Lakes, and Rep. Manny Diaz, (R)-Hialeah.
The bill will facilitate the expansion of privately managed charter schools in Florida, and their receipt of extra funding from taxpayers to increase their operations. Additionally, it includes a wide variety of other provisions, including school recess on a daily basis for the majority of elementary school students, as well as $30 million in supplementary funding to extend a voucher program that assists children with disabilities.
The new legislation has received much support from House Republicans, as well as those who advocate in favor of school choice, including operators of charter schools, which would derive a direct advantage from the new law, and conservative political groups, such as two associated with the Koch brothers. However, champions of traditional public education, such as superintendents across the state, nearly all elected school boards, parent groups and teacher unions, tried to dissuade Governor Scott from enacting the law.
They are worried about a provision that will compel districts to share millions of tax dollars with charter schools that are targeted for the construction of schools. Critics of charter schools say that this will only serve to reduce traditional public schools. Additionally, several detractors of charter schools disapprove of the $140 million “Schools of Hope” program that is House Speaker Corcoran’s response to continually failing public schools. The program would subsidize specialized charter schools to become established in mainly low-income areas and inspire them to compete directly with neighborhood schools that are striving to perform well. Corcoran placed responsibility for the need for improvement on school districts that spend more funds on construction than on providing assistance to students in failing schools.
Corcoran described HB 7069 as “one of the greatest K-12 bills in the history of the state of Florida.” But critics pressed Governor Scott to veto the bill. For example, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, a strong opponent of the bill, was the host of town hall meetings to inform county residents of the possible effects of the bill, and legislators’ decision to increase spending per pupil by just $24 per student. Governor Scott also differed with respect to the minimal increase in funding per student. Thus, he ordered lawmakers to return to Tallahassee for a session to arrive at a new budget for public schools, among other tasks. The legislators voted to raise spending by $100 per pupil throughout this school year, making the total K-12 budget $20.6 billion.
Following its narrow passage in the Legislature, the bill was the subject of forceful campaigns on both sides. While it easily passed the Republican-dominated House, it barely received a sufficient number of votes from the Senate. Furthermore, the secretive way in which the bill was assembled is problematic for some, including Governor Scott, who described the “lack of transparency” as “troubling.” The lengthy bill, which is 274 pages, was written by House Republicans, and was revealed three days prior to the termination of a session without any chance for the public to make suggestions or for legislators to amend it before the vote took place.
Despite the secrecy with which the bill was drafted, and the criticism it has received, there are still many who support charter schools, such as President Trump, who plans to spend millions on the expansion of charter schools, and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, who says she is in favor of increasing school choice, including charters. When she was questioned at a hearing earlier this year about whether she was “going to have accountability standards” in a new school choice program, she replied that states should determine the type of flexibility they will permit.
Education attorney John Geppert, a partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck LLC, a law firm in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, says “New Jersey law provides that charter schools are public schools in New Jersey.”
Charter schools receive public funding, but are privately managed, at times, by for-profit companies. Advocates of charter schools claim they provide parents with a choice when faced with the prospect of sending their children to a traditional public school that is struggling. On the other hand, critics say they take much-needed funds away from public schools and that while several are well-managed and prosperous, many others are badly administered.
It remains to be seen what effect, if any, the new schools bill will have on the success of charter schools in the state of Florida.
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