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Charter push a betrayal of public school students

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By The Staff

THE ISSUE: Florida Legislature sees charter schools as solution.

OUR OPINION: Transfer of $200 million to charter schools stands only to weaken public schools, harm Florida’s students and potentially enrich connected lawmakers.

Florida’s lawmakers are getting ready to authorize one of the largest transfers of public money to private interests in recent memory — and they’re calling it an “emergency.”

Legislators — mostly Republican — are calling for $200 million to be set aside in the budget to fund so-called “Schools of Hope,” which would take in students from failing state schools unable to show improvement.

The thrust of the relevant legislation — primarily HB 15/SB 1314 and HB 5105, here — seems innocuous: Give public schools a chance to succeed, and if they can’t, get students out of the failing public schools and put them into charter schools that have proven track records of success.

But that simplistic solution to the problems at Florida’s flagging schools whitewashes the fact that it is primarily Republican legislative efforts that have led the state’s schools to this point, haunted as they are by the legacy of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s educational accountability initiatives. Longtime residents of the state will recall it is Bush who was responsible for the failed Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which was recently replaced by the Florida Standards Assessments, and the much-maligned school grading system that accompanied the FCAT. Bush was also a strong advocate of charter-school vouchers. All of these efforts served to turn the tide of public opinion against public educators: The problems with Florida’s schools, citizens were told by state leaders, were the people in them and the structures that supported them — ineffective teachers, hapless administrations, villainous unions.

The fallout from decades of this under-the-breath castigation of public educators, and the punitive legislation that accompanied it, is now plain to see: Professionals do not want to teach in Florida and school districts don’t have enough money to do what the Legislature tells them they must. Instead of attracting the best teachers in the state and nation, the Legislature has driven them to other states by repeatedly refusing to increase their pay. It has saddled districts with scores of unfunded mandates in the name of fiscal responsibility, making local districts fund a larger share of transportation costs, penalizing them for class sizes that are too large while simultaneously failing to provide enough funding for the teachers needed to remedy that problem, putting in place demands that districts have up-to-date technology for students at a one-to-one ratio while failing to provide schools with the money to meet that demand.

“You’re failing,” state lawmakers have repeatedly told the state’s public schools. “And your punishment is to do more with less. Should you fail, we’ll take and demand even more.”

In the context of this historical perspective, some of the quotes from legislators in support of this push are rather distasteful:

“It is our moral responsibility to make this move and provide this option for our kids,” Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, said during discussion of the House measure. “We consider this an emergency.”

Is there no moral responsibility to assure students unable to attend charter schools get the high-quality education to which they are entitled? Is there no moral responsibility to support the public educators who will prepare the vast majority of the state’s students for the rest of their lives? Is there no moral responsibility to taxpayers to ensure their tax dollars go to support public institutions, rather than private interests?

“It’s already been proven that giving (public schools) more money in that classroom doesn’t fix the problem,” Clearwater Republican Rep. Chris Latvala said during a House Education Committee meeting in Tallahassee. “We have to completely change the way we do things and have a new approach.”

That has not been clearly proven; what has been proven is the opposite: That starving district budgets, laying off teachers and admonishing them to do better does not work. Want a complete change? Here’s a start: Give public schools more classroom dollars, and start crafting legislation and using language that shows respect and support for public educators instead of revealing a disdain for their enterprise.

Whether students would actually benefit from attending charter schools is itself an unresolved matter. A 2013 Stanford University study which compared public-school and charter-school students found students at Florida’s public schools outperforming their counterparts at charter schools. That’s particularly surprising given the privilege of selection that charters have over public schools. Republican politicians like charter schools because they align with the party’s mythos: the market succeeding where the government fails. But in the educational sphere, that myth does not conform with reality.

The state’s charters have another trouble our public schools don’t have: keeping their doors open. As reportage from around the state — perhaps most pointedly the South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s 2014 investigation “Unsupervised” — has repeatedly chronicled, Florida’s charters have been the scenes of corruption that would have had taxpayers milling with pitchforks if they had occurred in public schools. “Unsupervised” documented numerous cases where individuals received hundreds of thousands of dollars to open charter schools that closed in weeks or months.

Want accountability in education? Funneling public money to an industry that has repeatedly proven itself an untrustworthy steward of public dollars is a pretty poor solution.

One group, however, would certainly benefit from the enrichment and expansion of charter schools in Florida: Legislators and their friends with connections to the schools — and among that cohort you’ll find some recognizable names.

Former Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, the architect of the state’s ignominious Best & Brightest Scholarship program and the man who last year filed a bill that would have had districts share their construction tax funding with charters, is a consultant for Civica, an architectural firm which builds charter schools. According to the Miami Herald, as of last year the firm compensated Fresen to the tune of $150,000 annually. Fresen was term-limited at the end of last session, but his legislative ties will obviously remain. Fresen also has family in the business: His brother-in-law Fernando Zulueta is president at state charter school management firm Academica, where his sister Maggie Fresen Zulueta is vice president.

The aforementioned Diaz, of Hialeah, is chief operating officer at Doral College, run by Academica. Reporting by the Herald showed Academica- related donations to Fresen and Diaz campaigns amounted to at least $14,000.

Anne Corcoran, wife of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, in 2014 opened Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill. The school is doing well: As of last year, the Tampa Bay Times reported, its waiting list numbered about 800 potential students, twice the number enrolled. It is, by all accounts, the type of charter school Republican lawmakers want you to imagine when they invoke the phrase. As of the time of that reporting, Anne Corcoran received $1 a year to serve as the school’s CEO, but an infusion of taxpayer dollars would certainly help the school accelerate its expansion plans.

The answer to failing public schools is not charter schools. Despite persistent efforts to undermine public education in the state, Florida’s public schools repeatedly excel in national rankings such as those published annually by U.S. News & World Report. The answer to the problems in that system is to address them directly, to work as partners with educators and districts rather than as taskmasters, and to fund them at a level commensurate with what is requested of them — precisely the opposite of the aims expressed by proposed legislation. While there is a place for charter schools, citizens and lawmakers should want and champion strong public schools, for they are younger generations’ first and best hope for a successful life.

The charter school lobby has long been watering the legislative loam, and they’re eager to see the fruit of those campaign contributions. Since money makes policy, it seems likely the charter schools will get their bounty while public schools — and thus the majority of the state’s students — will continue to suffer canker.