Charter schools deserve aid

By CHARLES W. JONES, Guest Columnist The Sarasota Herald Tribune - April 14, 2015

The Florida House of Representatives passed legislation that requires public tax money dedicated to education to benefit all public school students -- including those in charter schools. A guest editorial from the Gainesville Sun, published April 6 in the Herald-Tribune, criticized the bill. Let me explain why I support the legislation.

Much attention has been given to the fact that, during the last two years, only the charter schools have received PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) funds from the state. Because of changing technologies affecting the "utility gross receipts tax" in Florida, those funds are drying up. PECO funds have decreased for several years and for the past two years the traditional public schools have received no PECO money.

Charter school opponents would have you believe that only the charter schools have been getting any capital outlay. Not true. PECO was usually a smaller part of a school district's capital outlay funds.

The big bucks come from the local property taxes that a school district is allowed to levy. Those funds buy property, buildings, school buses, computers, furniture and more.

Florida school districts have never been required to share any of those funds with charter schools. The Sarasota County school district shares some of those funds with charters. But few other districts do, and Manatee does not. The House understands that the districts have access to those funds, while the charters do not.

The Legislature has continued some PECO funding for charter schools while it considers the PECO program's future. However, the charter-school PECO funding on a per-student basis fell more than 50 percent over the past nine years.

Capital outlay for public schools comes from PECO and local property taxes. It has been easy for critics to decry districts' decrease in PECO without mentioning that the major source of public schools' capital outlay, the local property tax money, remains solely in the possession and under control of the local school boards.

The current legislation is an attempt to begin to rectify a significant differential in funding for children in charter schools.

The charter schools have reduced the number of children the district schools must serve. However, the districts maintain the ability to retain all the capital funds raised through local property taxes. Why don't those funds for capital purposes follow the child if he or she goes to a charter school?

Charter schools have actually freed money up for traditional schools. The district and charter schools receive operating funds based on the number of students they serve. The district gets to keep as much as 5 percent of charter school funds. Only some of the federal money that comes to the district flows through to the charter schools. The state provides a Guaranteed Exceptional Students Education allocation of roughly $2,000 for every Level 1 ESE student in the district, including those at charter schools. Yet, the charter schools only receive $1,134 for middle school and $807 for high school Level 1 ESE students.

What's more, contrary to what was stated in the Gainesville Sun editorial, charter schools in Florida must pay for their students' transportation and food services, often contracted through their district.

Charter schools ARE public schools. They are accountable for their performance financially and academically. Teachers must be certified. Charter students take the same tests and must meet the same standards as other public school students. Every employee must have a background check. Board members have required training. If charters don't perform, they close. Low-performing traditional public schools shuffle teachers, administrators and students among schools while throwing even more money at them.

How is that accountability?

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Charles W. Jones, Ph.D., is principal of the Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto. MSA is a high-performing, award-winning charter school, serving over 1,700 students in grades 6 to 12.