Florida charter schools move closer to equal funding

Tamara Switken chose to send her children to Mason Classical Academy, a charter school in Collier County, Fla. She was drawn to the well-rounded curriculum. The school requires children to read the classics. It emphasizes good character. “There’s nowhere else I would send my children,” she said.

That’s despite some of the hardships. The school was founded by parents. (Two of them later won seats on the local school board and one was elected to the state Legislature.) It doesn’t have its own buses and, at least for now, it doesn’t have its own athletic fields. That means parents have to shuttle their kids back and forth to practice.

“It creates a struggle for the parents, not having on-site facilities,” she said. But those parents pay taxes to support local public schools. Collier County is home to one of the most lucrative tax bases in the state, thanks in part to the million-dollar homes that dot its coastline.

Switken said those tax dollars should follow children to whatever school they choose. That would allow her school to pay for upgrades parents want.

For that reason, she was one of the thousands of parents who contacted Gov. Rick Scott to support a contentious bill that, for the first time, will require school districts to send a proportional share of the property taxes earmarked for school construction with local charter schools. That bill has now been law for more than a month.

“I wanted equality,” Switken said.

Next school year, Florida’s school districts are expected to raise a combined $2.5 billion dollars from property taxes to pay for school facilities. Some will raise millions more from other local revenue sources they won’t be required to share.

Numbers crunched by the Florida House show charters will receive an estimated $96 million statewide, on top of the $50 million they receive from the state. That combined total — $146 million — would nearly double what they received last year.

The actual amounts each charter receives will vary substantially.

A fair share?

To help preserve districts’ credit ratings, the law subtracts districts’ debt payments from the amount they’re required to share.

In three districts — Lake, Pasco and St. Lucie Counties — charters won’t receive any local funding at all next year, the House estimates show. The three counties are high-growth suburbs where districts took out loans to build new schools during population booms.

As a result, charters in those communities would only receive about $193 per student for facilities, their share of the $50 million funded by the state. That’s about $100 less per student than they received last year. On average, however, charter school facilities funding would increase by about $250 per student.

Ironies abound.

For one thing, House Speaker Richard Corcoran helped champion the new law. Some critics questioned his motivations, pointing out his wife helped start a charter school in Pasco. Never mind that she runs the school as a volunteer, and the Tampa Bay Times reported she draws a $1 salary. The school would be one of a handful of charters in the state that will see their facilities funding reduced.

Meanwhile, St. Lucie County was one of the first school districts to announce plans to join a lawsuit challenging the new law. Revenue sharing with charters will likely a key issue in that case, but those provisions won’t immediately affect the district’s bottom line.

On average, districts would have to share 6.8 percent of their property tax revenue earmarked for school buildings with charters. That would amount to a little under $350 per charter school student. But other factors will affect the amount each charter receives. For example, an existing law gives more funding to charters that enroll large numbers of low-income and special needs children.

Closing the gap

The change is a big deal. The lack of funding for buildings is a major reason charter schools have historically gotten less money per student than their district-run counterparts. It’s hampered efforts to draw top charter schools into low-income areas.

Last month, at a national conference in Washington, Todd Ziebarth of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools noted that Florida’s new law — which had not yet been signed — was one of two major advancements for funding equity around the country. The other was a new Colorado law that requires districts to share optional voter-approved property taxes. Colorado still doesn’t require districts to share facilities funding the way Florida now does.

Districts in Florida objected to the change. They argue their buildings are more costly, since they’re subject to more state regulations. And many told the Legislature they were strapped for cash already.

During a recent state board of education meeting, Miami-Dade Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho noted pointedly that taxpayers have owned the campus hosting the meeting for more than a century. They could continue owning it for a century to come, he said, but that wasn’t always the case with charter schools.

That said, there are charter schools in the state with contracts that return to their local districts if they ever close, but the law does not require those arrangements. And now, for the first time, charter schools are bound together with the state’s other public schools in the same funding system.

At the charter school gathering in Washington, Fernando Zulueta, the founder of the giant charter school management company Academica, said he welcomed the end of the era when charter funding depended solely on annual appropriations in the state budget. He called that funding system “separate but unequal.”

“It’s hard to argue when you’re saying, what level of funding do the children deserve?” he said. “Clearly they’re all public school kids, and they deserve to be treated equally.”