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Education Transformation

New state law ushers in big changes for public and charter schools in Florida.

In June, controversial Florida education bill H.B. 7069 was passed, bringing considerable changes to our education system as we know it. The reason for the controversy? Simply put, the new legislation allows for money earmarked for public schools to instead be diverted to charter schools, some of which have had a mixed record of success while attracting polarizing opinions.

For his part, Gov. Rick Scott is optimistic about what it will allow schools to do. “This legislation, combined with the historic $100- per-student increase in funding I called for during the special [legislative] session, will put all of Florida’s students on a pathway toward success,” says Scott, a stout supporter of educational choice who believes the bill will serve as a platform for school options.

“When I was growing up, I had access to a good quality education, and every Florida child should have the same opportunity,” Scott adds. “Florida’s K-12 education system is so important to the future of our children and our state, and we will never stop looking for ways to improve how our students learn and achieve.”

However, other government officials are not as convinced about the supposed benefits. For example, State Senator Linda Stewart (D-Orlando) views it as a hurried piece of legislation that is not in the best interest of students. “The legislation … gives to the charter school industry a free hand and promises them a bountiful reward,” she says. “It allows corporations with no track record of success, no obligation to struggling students, and no mandated standards of accountability to flourish, with the sole obligation to their shareholders.”

Looking beyond the divisiveness of this bill, it is important to break down the ways in which it will affect the control that charter schools possess and the current support that public schools receive.

One of the ways this will occur is with steep cuts to the budget of Base Student Allocation (BSA). The BSA is the per-student amount that fulltime instructors in the public sector receive each year to provide all of the materials needed to teach. The cuts outlined in the bill will reduce this figure to $27.07 per student, a 10-year low. This particular budget has long been a focal point for public schools, and this new bill forces a redirection of funds away from this area and into other programs.

According to Orange County Public Schools (OCPS) Superintendent Dr. Barbara Jenkins, a portion of this bill that focuses on the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) will negatively affect the expected increases in budgets across the state. “Despite having a budget surplus in Florida, the funding contained in the FEFP represents an inadequate average increase statewide of $24.49 (or 0.35 percent) per student,” she says. “This level of funding does not begin to address the basic educational services we are tasked with providing our students.”

On top of these reforms, charter schools will be granted the right to share the millage capital that is collected statewide and is used for school construction. This new provision means that funding previously reserved strictly for public schools is now going to be split in some measure between public and charter schools.

There is no language yet that specifies what impact this provision will have on the future trend of millage rates, but many local public-school administrators believe that it will not be positive. In a letter to Gov. Scott, Jenkins and several members of the board stressed the importance of using these funds to address enrollment increases and keep up with necessary maintenance. The splitting of funds will make it more difficult for public schools to tackle these needs.

On the other hand, Ken Haiko, chairman of Renaissance Charter Schools, which has several Greater Orlando locations, believes this change will improve the educational opportunities of all students. “We are in favor of any bill that positively impacts students,” he says. “H.B. 7069 allows the funding to follow the student and puts parents in charge of their child’s educational decisions.”

Moreover, H.B. 7069 will allow for the implementation of the “Schools of Hope” legislation; a program that encourages nonprofit charter schools with high-performance track records to open additional locations where the lowest performing public schools currently exist.

Although this initiative will provide families in those areas an option to join, there is also fear that public schools will suffer immensely as a result. The language states that approximately $140 million will be provided to fund “Schools of Hope,” but it is worth noting that of the schools that are eligible to receive monetary incentives, only 25 of them are public schools.

Ultimately, the changes for public and charter schools alike are as varied as they are numerous, with other tweaks including increased standards for charter schools, mandatory recess at public elementary schools and the elimination of a state math exam. Only time will tell who the winners and losers will be—but for all our sakes, students and their families will hopefully come out on top.

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s August 2017 issue.