By KATHLEEN McGRORY
and MICHAEL VAN SICKLER
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE -- Charter schools will receive $91 million for construction and maintenance needs, state lawmakers agreed late Sunday.
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The figure represents a $36 million increase over last year's allocation, but falls just short of the $100 million proposed by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida House.
The deal was struck during a series of budget negotiations that lasted late into the night Saturday and Sunday. It is almost certain to pass the two chambers and win approval by the governor.
"We're very pleased that the Legislature worked to get specific capital outlay dollars to charter schools," said Larry Williams, who represents the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.
The money is a one-time allocation, most of which will come out of the Public Education Capital Outlay fund. PECO dollars are generated from the state's gross receipts tax on cable-television, electricity and land-line telephone bills.
Charter school advocates had hoped to secure a recurring source of funding for capital outlay projects this year. They acknowledged Sunday the goal was unlikely to become reality before the end
of this year's legislative session Friday.
But that doesn't mean the fight is over.
"We need to move forward with a permanent mechanism that automatically funds charter schools' capital outlay needs," said former state Rep. Ralph Arza, who represents the Florida Charter School Alliance. "The parents of those children deserve a recurring source."
Charter schools enroll more than 200,000 students statewide, and are run by nonprofit governing boards that function independently of local school districts. Some are managed by for-profit companies.
Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive state money for operating expenses, including teacher salaries and instructional materials. But while traditional school systems can levy property taxes to pay for construction and maintenance, charter schools cannot.
For the past several years, the Legislature has given charter schools a boost through the PECO fund. Those dollars used to go to traditional public schools, too. But because fewer people are using land-line phones, the fund has been slowly dwindling.
Opponents say charter schools should not receive tax money for capital projects because their facilities are not public assets. They also say charter schools were first allowed in Florida because they promised to do more with less.
Advocates, however, say children statewide should receive the same amount of money, regardless of whether they attend traditional or charter schools. A steady stream of facilities funding, they say, would help level the playing field.
This year, state Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, filed a bill that would have designated a recurring $200 million from the state's education budget for charter school facilities, but it failed to gain traction.
Also on life support: a move to make under-enrolled traditional schools share unused space with charter schools.
Despite the setbacks, charter schools made headway this session, Arza said.
For one thing, he said, charter school teachers will receive the pay raises likely to come to educators statewide. For another, the schools will benefit from an overall increase in per-pupil funding.