Florida’s efforts to save public education started July 1, the day a new state law went into effect that forces public school districts to divert taxpayer dollars to privately-run charter and religious schools.
In a cynical effort to expand school choice, the Republican-led Florida Legislature concocted HB 7069, a bill crafted behind closed doors and sprung on state lawmakers in the closing days of the legislative session.
Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law, despite overwhelming opposition from educators, parents, school superintendents and school board members.
Floridians should not let this onerous law stand. The first of July should have taken on the significance of the Fourth. Now is the time to start the political groundswell that will persuade state leaders to craft new legislation to stop the damage HB 7069 will do to our public schools.
Florida has never been in a sweet spot when it comes to funding public schools. According to the most recent Census data, the national average for per-pupil spending is around $11,000. In Florida, the figure is just over $7,923, a whopping 1.3 percent increase over last year’s funding. The figure puts our state closer to the bottom of most national rankings.
Charter schools have always been a part of Florida’s educational mix. They are publicly funded but independently operated. They are not a part of the public-school system nor are they subject to the same regulations of accountability and transparency that govern public schools.
Some charter schools have made strides in helping to educate disabled students and students living in low-income communities.
Others, unfortunately, have been nothing more than fly-by-night operations, preying on parents who only wanted a good education for their children.
On July 1, these schools – good and bad – became entitled to a public windfall. Public schools now must give charter schools a portion of their revenue that would have been used to fix aging classrooms or help low-income students reach academic success.
The Broward County Public Schools will be forced to dole out $12.7 million to charter schools during the 2017-2018 school year, and that figure is expected to increase every year to a total of $100 million over a five-year period. In Palm Beach County, school officials say they will lose an estimated $92 million in a five-year period.
Florida has ample school choice options, from charter schools to the nation’s largest tax credit scholarship program. Still, most of Florida’s schoolchildren attend public schools, and their interests shouldn’t be hurt by a bad law out of Tallahassee.
Broward County has a good school system. Just recently, the district earned its highest graduation rate in the past five years. Its ongoing efforts should be supported, not crippled.
Public schools should be celebrated. Instead, our state now boasts of a law that undermines them in favor of a largely unregulated private school industry. If you believe in reforming Florida’s public school system, now is the time to get engaged in a renewed effort to save it.
Perry E. Thurston Jr. is a Democrat who represents the 33rd District in the Florida Senate.
He is a member of the Senate Education Committee.