Fla. lawmakers eye lawsuits’ threats to charter school funding

by Livi Stanford and Travis Pillow

A trio of lawsuits taking aim at last year’s major education law could pose tricky questions for lawmakers — if they succeed.

One Friday, a Leon County judge rebuffed one school district’s attempt to halt implementation the law, which is set to steer more than $91 million in local property tax revenue to charter schools on Feb. 1.

However, the underlying case is still proceeding, along with two others. That means a hard-won new funding source for charter schools is still in question.

Several key lawmakers who backed the new law, known as HB 7069, say they’re confident the state will eventually win the cases. But if it doesn’t, they said, it should try to make charter schools whole.

Right now, the state is providing approximately 544 charter schools with their share of $50 million in state funding. That’s down from $75 million the year before. But that’s before factoring in the new law, which provides charters with an additional $91.2 million from school districts, according to a memo sent out last week by the state Department of Education.

Without the funding the new law provides, charter schools would absorb a facilities funding cut of about a third, and their lowest per-pupil capital funding since the state created its charter school capital funding system.

Friday’s decision by James Shelfer means the lawsuits are less likely to change schools’ budgets in the current school year. But it doesn’t change the potential implications for charter and district finances in future years.

Both Reps. Jason Fischer, R-Jacksonville, and House Education Appropriations Chairman Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah, said they are optimistic courts will ultimately uphold the law.

Even so, they said they would seek a remedy if the court sides with the school districts.

“We are looking at it and we are prepared to take steps to make sure we solve the issue once and for all,” Diaz said.

One short-term remedy Diaz suggested could include raising the amount of state capital funding for charters.

The new law was intended to ease the burden on the Public Education Capital Outlay. Charter schools share that funding source with school districts, colleges and universities. That meant charter schools’ capital funding depended on a four-way fight for money from a dwindling revenue source. As more charters qualified for funding, the state kept spreading the money more thinly.

Diaz said the state constitution does not prevent lawmakers from requiring districts to share local funding with charter schools. The state has made a similar point in its defense of the law.

And Diaz pointed out that other parts of the funding system, including the state’s main funding mechanism for public school operations, rely on a mix of state and district revenue.

“If you look at what they are challenging, and you look at the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP), they will basically have to throw out the FEFP,” he said. “The FEFP is a share of local and state dollars as well.”

Fischer said if the lawsuit succeeded, the legislature should find a way to use existing dollars to fill the funding gap charters would face. And he said the Legislature should invest more money in school capital projects — which could ease the new law’s impact on district-run schools and help charters at the same time.

“The charter schools should have been getting their fair share in the first place,” he said. “HB 7069 was the fix to try to do that.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Larry Lee, D-Port St. Lucie, said he was certain if school districts were assured there would be no cuts to their own budgets, they would be willing to address charter schools’ needs.

“I think all the parties involved — the school district, the superintendent of schools, the state department of education and the legislature — we all should sit down at the table and find a way to work this out,” he said.

Like Lee, Rep. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park is a top-ranking Democrat on education committees who opposed the legislation last year.

“I will always side with the school district,” he said. “They know what is best. But I am also a realist” and if the districts lose the case and the law’s allowed to stand, he said, “we would need to go back to the drawing board and find what needs to be done so that children, students and parents are not affected.

But regardless of how the judge rules, Jones reiterated he wants to ensure children are not being affected regardless of where they go to school.