Florida education bill a win for students in 'charter public schools'

Re-posting an op ed column from South Florida Sun-Sentinel -- Education Bill could be a game-changer for Florida students

By Nina Rees

The Florida House and Senate have passed a comprehensive education bill that could be a game-changer when it comes to giving more public school students access to high-quality charter public schools. If Gov. Rick Scott allows the bill to become law, thousands more Florida students — including many from the state's most troubled school districts — could see a big jump in educational opportunity.

The bill does a few important things to expand charter school access and improve charter school equity.

Starting at the earliest levels of education, the bill would include charter schools in the definition of "public school preschool providers." Across the country, charter schools are demonstrating their ability to expand access to critical pre-Kindergarten programs — the type of high-quality early instruction that helps children get a strong foundation for lifelong learning. When charter schools are allowed to offer pre-K programs, more students can attend preschool at no cost to their parents.

HB 7069 also creates a "Schools of Hope" program to encourage successful charter schools in low-income communities to expand into areas with persistently low-performing district-run schools.

Study after study — including one just released from the Florida Department of Education — shows that charter schools produce some of their most impressive gains among economically disadvantaged students. These are the students who typically attend under-performing district schools and urgently need better public school options. The Schools of Hope program would attract charter schools with proven, successful models to the communities where they can do the most good.

One thing that holds back charter school growth — to the detriment of students — is unequal funding between charter schools and other public schools. A new report from researchers at the University of Arkansas finds that in cities across America, the average funding gap between students in charter schools and students in district-run schools is about $5,700 per student — with charters on the short end. An earlier report from the same researchers found that Florida's charter school students receive 20 percent less funding than students attending district-run schools.

It makes no sense to fund public school students differently depending on which local public school they attend. HB 7069 would take two important steps to reduce these funding gaps in Florida. First, it would require school districts to share local property taxes (known as "millage") with charter schools. The University of Arkansas reports specifically cite inequities in local tax distributions as a main cause of unfair funding for charter school students. By requiring school districts to share tax revenue, Florida can ensure that parents' property taxes will be used to support their children's education regardless of which public school they attend.

The second way HB 7069 would increase funding for charter school students is by requiring school districts to fairly share their Title I funding — money that the federal government allocates to help students in schools with high concentrations of poverty. Right now, some Florida school districts provide charter schools less than 50 percent of the Title I dollars they're eligible to receive. This short-changes students who deserve all the resources we can give them. HB 7069 would be a big boost to these students.

This bill's measures to improve funding equity and encourage successful charter schools to serve more students from pre-K through high school will put a high-quality public school within reach of many more Florida students. No legislation is perfect, and charter schools will continue to have fight for better opportunities and more funding for their students. But HB 7069 is another important step in Florida's decades-long history of striving to give parents and students better public school choices.

Nina Rees is president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.