Charter school legislation moving through the Florida House would give public school leaders — rather than district officials — more direct control over how they spend federal funding for low-income students.
An amendment added to the charter school measure HB 7101 last week would cap the amount of Title I funding school districts can spend on administrative overhead and mandatory services for specific groups, like homeless students and those attending private schools.
The remaining money would have to be distributed directly to schools that qualify for the funding.
The proposal comes amid growing complaints from charters that districts use federal money for centralized programs, which may or may not benefit their low-income students. But the measure would affect traditional public schools, too.
House education budget chief Rep. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said the measure dovetails with other House efforts to give public school principals more freedom from state regulations and more control over decision-making in their schools.
“We need to figure out how to get those dollars down to the school site, where the student is,” he said. “The students are not at the central office. They’re at the school site.”
The idea drew pushback, however, from district officials, as well as Democrats, whose sentiments have largely been positive or neutral on the wide-ranging charter school legislation (HB 7101).
Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park, argued the concept “totally takes us off course” from an agenda focused on turning around D- and F-rated schools, which tend to overlap with high-poverty schools that qualify for Title I funding.
Wendy Dodge, who represents the Polk County school district, said the district uses Title I to pay for things like early childhood education, staff development, summer programs, district-wide initiatives that target struggling third-grade readers and wraparound services for low-income parents.
It also uses the federal money to support a food truck-like program that brings books and reading specialists into high-poverty neighborhoods. Those programs, she said, are designed to support the district’s lowest-performing schools.
“It says you can’t do that anymore,” she said of the proposal. “You have to spread that money district-wide, and you can’t focus on the things that you put in your turnaround plan.”
Under the new language, most Title I funding would go directly to schools that qualify for the federal program, based on statewide guidelines tied to the number of children who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch.
Supporters of the change, including Rep. Mike Bileca, R-Miami, said schools that wanted to participate in district-wide programs like those described by Dodge would still be free to do so.
“Many of the schools really don’t use those, and they just said, ‘I’d just rather have the money,'” he said.
Bileca, who chairs the Education Committee, said the bill could see some final tweaks when it gets taken up on the House floor. The Senate has not yet advanced a direct counterpart to the legislation. One candidate, SB 1362, still sits in committee.