Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Politics

Charter schools could get $96M in capital aid from Florida school districts next year

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TALLAHASSEE — Florida's 650 charter schools could see as much as an extra $96.3 million coming their way in 2017-18, thanks to a controversial provision in a sweeping education bill Gov. Rick Scott signed into law that forces school districts to hand over some of their local tax dollars.

An aspect of HB 7069 that most concerned school district administrators and locally elected school boards requires districts to give a cut of their taxpayer funding earmarked for construction and maintenance projects to privately managed charter schools, which are independent of the district.

Data requested by the Times/Herald and provided by the Florida House now provides a look at the statewide impact of that fiscal policy, which takes effect when the new budget year begins Saturday, July 1.

The $96 million is nearly 7 percent of the $1.4 billion statewide that county school districts could have to spend next school year, after accounting for required debt payments off the top. (The House's numbers are based on data for the 2016-17 school year, though, so they are likely to change.)

The figure is a maximum estimate — a representation of the most dollars school districts would have to share if all of their area charter schools were eligible for capital aid, said Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican who is the House pre-K-12 education budget chairman.

Not all charter schools can get capital money. In order to be eligible, schools have to meet certain financial and academic performance standards and have to be operating for at least two years. Charter schools that mostly serve low-income students or students with disabilities receive a greater share of available dollars, under changes made in 2016.

Using calculations under the new formula established by HB 7069, the House data show the state's most populous school districts — Miami-Dade and Broward counties — will take the biggest hits in terms of pure dollar amounts. But they also serve the greatest number of charter school students, which is a large contributing factor.

Similar to what district administrators had estimated, the House breakdown shows Miami-Dade might have to share as much as $23.2 million with its charter schools next school year, or about 12 percent of its capital dollars after debt payments.

Broward schools could have to share up to $12 million, or about 10 percent.

A couple smaller school districts could proportionally have to give a greater cut of their available funds to charter schools. The maximum potential shared dollars equate to a full 33 percent of Sumter County schools' available capital spending after debt and 24 percent of Franklin County schools' funds, according to the House data.

The proportional disparity among counties stems in large part from how many charter school students each serves, Diaz said, as well as the amount of debt service districts carry, which can vary widely.

In contrast to past practice where school districts dolled out their local capital dollars based on school facility needs, the new sharing requirement under HB 7069 calculates how much is owed to charters on a per-student basis.

That's generally why the districts that might have to pay the most proportionally to their charter schools are the same districts where charter school students make up a greater percentage of the total student population, the data show.

School districts in Tampa Bay will feel less of a relative impact, although their maximum dollar amounts are still in the millions.

Pinellas County schools could have to share 4.7 percent of available funds, or about $4.9 million, and Hillsborough County schools might need to share about 3 percent, or $1.9 million.

Pasco County is among a couple dozen school districts that won't have to share any capital money, the House calculations say.

For Pasco, that's because the county generates so little in capital revenue once it makes its debt payment that, under the intricacies of the formula, there wouldn't be dollars left over to share with charter schools.

In those cases where the local districts don't have to share their money, area charter schools would still get capital aid from the state — $50 million in 2017-18 that's divided among all eligible charter schools statewide, even those getting a cut of local money.

Florida has 4,200 K-12 public schools, of which 650 are charter schools that receive taxpayer funding but are managed by private entities not under the purview of the school district. Some of those private operators are for-profit companies.

There are about 276,000 children in charter schools, compared to about 2.5 million children in traditional public schools.

School districts previously had the option to share their local capital money with charter schools, but few did.

Charter school advocates have for several years sought the statewide mandate, arguing they should be funded equitably with traditional public schools and that capital money should follow the child, not be dictated by the needs of a school.

However, school district administrators point out that by comparison with the aging facilities many traditional schools use, charter schools often locate in new or leased property, which demand fewer expenses.

Contact Kristen M. Clark at kclark@miamherald.com. Follow @ByKristenMClark

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