School choice is a desirable public policy, and Florida allows parents great latitude in selecting which school to send their children. New this year is legislation that expands options. Should Gov. Rick Scott sign this bill, students can attend any public school in the state with available space. Students in a subpar school, according to state rankings, could transfer to a higher grade school.
Athletes don't have to worry about transferring, either. They are free to move, too.
There's another option, which has been open since the 1990s. Manatee County enjoys a number of respectable and notable charter schools, such as the Manatee High School for the Arts and Rowlett Academy for the Arts and Communication. Both offer a more diverse curriculum than found in public schools, and that is indeed a positive for parents and students who want a future unique to their talents and motivations.
Charter schools depend on taxpayer dollars to exist, and some companies profit handsomely. That is at the heart of a court battle. A Florida Constitution amendment passed by voters in 1998 mandated a simple phrase: that the state operate a "high quality system of free public schools" as a "paramount duty." This legislative session, lawmakers capped capital spending on traditional public schools while easing the rules on charters.
Charter schools were originally intended to offer "quality, alternative schools in low-income neighborhoods or innovative programs not offered in traditional public school." So stated Florida state Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville (and a former school district superintendent), in defending legislation that would have limited potential funding on capital allocations to charter schools this year.
Under his rational plan, charter schools would not be eligible for capital funding unless school leaders signed a sworn statement that those taxpayer dollars would not lead to "private enrichment" on construction or repairs. Should investors profit from charter schools and the property bought or leased? Off the taxpayers' dime? That sensible policy died.
The House failed taxpayers in rejecting legislation that would have adopted that ban on enrichment of companies linked to charter schools. Those corporations typically profit by charging management and rental fees if not owning schools outright.
Publicly funded but privately managed, charter schools are a perennial target for criticism as lawmakers continue to fund what amounts to mostly private enterprise. This year is no different. But let's be fair, many charter schools are nonprofit and operate as outstanding community citizens.
The House Education Budget Committee Chairman, Erik Fresen, R-Miami, was one of the leaders in torpedoing the Senate legislation. He works as a land consultant for an architecture company specializing in building charter schools. Relatives do, too. How is that not a conflict of interest? He claims that is not so, but appearances speak volumes.
Worse, Fresen inserted a single line in the thick omnibus education bill that now allows charter schools to be eligible for capital funding a year earlier than in the past -- from three years to two. And, according to the Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau, he never mentioned this in explaining the amended legislation to chamber members but only briefly cited the addition on the House floor. This is an outrage that Gov. Rick Scott should reject. Fresen's conflict of interest is appallingly.
Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords -- one and the same, in many cases -- and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest -- like Fresen.
Since 2000, Florida has lost $70 million in capital funding to charter schools that subsequently closed. In 2011, our sister newspaper, the Miami Herald, reported that the state's charter school laws "are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules."
Florida must do a better job at vetting charter school applications and applying accountability standards. Students and parents deserve that state protection.