The missing $3 billion in Florida’s charter school debate

Somewhere in the rhetoric swirling around Florida’s charter schools, about $3 billion has gone missing.

That’s the money the state’s school districts bring in each year in local revenue to help pay for construction, building renovations and other long-term investments known as capital spending.

And, at risk of sounding like a broken record, it’s money keeps getting ignored in debates over charter school funding, including the one that’s flaring in South Florida state legislative races, as reported by the Miami Herald.

“There’s a problem when we see that there’s so much money that is going for infrastructure for these charter schools in terms of construction capital money when we have such a large number of public schools and the amount of money that’s being put into our schools is much, much less,” said Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of United Teachers of Dade.

How much money is going to construction and capital money for charter schools? This year, it’s $75 million. Lawmakers also set aside $75 million in capital funding for the state’s 67 school districts and added another $75 million to build schools in rural districts where revenue is scarce. The Herald correctly notes that district schools, which enroll roughly nine out of ten public-school students in Florida, receive proportionately less from the state.

But that’s just money from the state.

This is where the missing $3 billion — more than $2.3 billion in property tax revenue, and hundreds of millions more in local sales taxes, impact fees and other revenue sources (see page 28 of this statewide schools spending summary) — comes into play.

With the exception of a handful of school districts, this money is not shared with charters. Outside of places like Polk, Bay, Franklin and Sarasota Counties, charter schools rely exclusively on funding from the state to pay for their buildings.

As a result, charters receive less money per student than traditional public schools. And the state funding they receive is a drop in the bucket compared to what districts spend on construction, much less what they say they need.

Some charter advocates argue the state should fund all public-school students equally — meaning charters should receive the same amount of funding per students as district schools.

But when it comes to construction funding, there are some complicating factors.

  • School district construction is subject to more regulations than charter school construction, which means districts’ building costs are higher.
  • Many districts are still paying off bonds from schools they built during previous population booms. Collectively, they spent more than $1.3 billion of their capital funding on debt service during the 2015-16 school year. That cuts into the money that’s available to renovate their existing schools, or to build new ones in fast-growing areas.
  • In recent years, districts have lost some of their authority to raise property taxes to pay for school construction, which superintendents say adds to their fiscal strain.

Finally, there are legitimate debates to be had about how charter school funding works. Who should own the facilities? What should happen when schools close? What restrictions should be placed on how the money gets spent?

But the numbers are clear. Charters, and the $75 mere million they receive from the state, are not the main source of Florida school districts’ facilities funding woes, and traditional schools certainly aren’t the ones getting less.

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