Charter school backers find little support in Tallahassee

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMarch 12, 2012 

TALLAHASSEE -- The charter school lobby came to Tallahassee this year with an ambitious agenda:

Win a share of school districts' construction dollars. Create a separate high school sports association. Empower parents to demand charter-school conversions.

But they fell short on almost all counts.

The defeats came as a stinging surprise for the charter movement, which had enjoyed a string of victories in previous legislative sessions. Just last year, state lawmakers gave high-performing charter schools the green light to grow more rapidly -- and pay less in administrative fees.

What was different about this year? Was it the slowing of the school choice movement? The peculiar politics of redistricting? The last-minute meltdown in the Senate?

To some extent, it was all of the above.

"They overreached," said Rep. Dwight Bullard, of Miami, the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee. "For years, they got

everything they asked for. This year, there was a real tempering."

Charter school advocates, however, saw a silver lining.

"We got the policy part debated," said former Sen. Jim Horne, who lobbies for several charter school management companies. "Did we want to take it to the finish line? Of course we did. But the important thing is that we elevated the discussion, and we'll be back next year."

Charter schools are publicly financed but run by independent governing boards. Some are managed by for-profit companies.

Since taking off in 1996, the charter school movement has become an increasingly large part of the education landscape in Florida. Statewide enrollment now tops 180,000 students. In South Florida, one in ten schoolchildren attends a charter school.

When the movement was in its infancy -- and the economy was booming -- Florida lawmakers helped it along. There were few complaints. Traditional public schools were struggling to keep up with the influx of children -- and welcomed the concept of independent schools that could provide additional seats for students.

The conversation took a different tone this year.

Though Gov. Rick Scott boosted education spending by about $1 billion, it still wasn't enough to make up for last year's deep cuts. What's more, the state fund for school construction and maintenance continued to dry up, leaving traditional school districts and charter schools in an all-out war over public dollars.

"If the economy were different, then we wouldn't be where we are," said Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association. "We weren't fighting over the scraps; we were fighting over the bone."

Not surprisingly, when Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, and Sen. Stephen Wise, R-Jacksonville, floated a proposal that would require school boards to share their construction and maintenance dollars with charter schools, traditional public school boards and superintendents across the state made noise.

Adkins said it was an issue of fairness.

"Our public resources should be fairly and equitably distributed among all public schools," she said, noting that charter schools cannot levy taxes for construction, while traditional public schools can.

The charter school lobby brought out its A-team (Horne, former Senate President Ken Pruitt, former Rep. Ralph Arza, former Sen. Al Lawson, and others) and worked long hours.

Still, the bill died -- despite repeated maneuvers meant to revive it. Lawmakers ultimately decided to convene a task force to take up the issue of charter school capital funding.

Wise had also pitched a proposal that would have allowed charter and private schools to have their own sports league. Opponents said it would have enabled charter schools to recruit students, making charter schools more attractive to top student athletes.

That, too, was scrapped.

Also left on the cutting room floor: a proposal by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, that would have allowed charter schools to offer adult education programs -- and effectively tap into another pot of state education dollars.

Politics -- especially the politics of a redistricting year -- may have been partly to blame.

Any state lawmaker not facing term limits has to run for re-election once the new district maps are complete. The Florida Education Association and countywide teachers' unions, which have opposed the rapid expansion of charter schools, remain a formidable force in local elections. And statewide polls show considerable support for public schools.

"Charter schools, especially when packaged with policies that have the potential to destabilize traditional public schools that are in most ways functioning OK, can stir opposition from families and politicians that are loyal to public schools in their own communities," said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Columbia University's Teachers College.

Henig also noted that the public perception of charter schools is changing.

While the schools were initially seen as home-grown enterprises, they "are increasingly seen to be funded and promoted by 'outsiders' that voters regard suspiciously," he said, referencing the corporations that sometimes run schools.

Late last year, the Miami Herald reported that charter schools have become a $400-million-a-year industry in South Florida, home to the nation's fourth- and fifth-largest school districts. In some cases, the educational mission of the school has clashed with the profit-making mission of the management company.

Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said there is also growing awareness that charter schools, on average, perform no better or no worse than traditional public schools.

"I think the bloom is off the charter school rose," he said.

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