In some Florida school districts, charter school politics get tricky

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Hillsborough County has joined the growing list of Florida school districts where charter schools might help absorb enrollment growth.

The Tampa Bay Times reports this has created some awkward politics around a massive piece of education legislation many district officials loathe.

The same district leaders who complain about the Legislature and call for a veto also say they need charter schools to accommodate population growth, as funds are scarce to build new schools. This is especially true in the southernmost part of the county, where approved developments that were dormant during the recession are now springing to life.

Some also recognize that charter schools can give a second chance to students who fall through the cracks in the district system. Board member Susan Valdes, speaking at the May 16 board meeting, described two such students, one who lost a parent to military combat and the other who had been ill.

“If the governor signs the bill,” Valdes said, addressing administrators in the auditorium, “hey, life lesson that we should learn about really, truly taking care of our children — not just taking their money.”

Charters can build new schools that don’t depend on school district financing. And they’re less likely to trigger politically painful rezoning. That’s making them an increasingly vital part of Florida’s public school system. The heated battle over House bill 7069 raises the question: Will that change the politics?

Some of the most controversial changes in the bill would give charter schools more district-like powers and privileges. They’d have more control over federal Title I funding. They’d have stable access to district property tax revenue for their facilities. They’d be able to run teacher mentorship programs to develop their teachers. They’d have more freedom to form local education agencies.

They’d be treated, in other words, like they’re no longer an experiment. They’d be treated like an established part of the public education system — and funded accordingly.

To be sure, many school district officials aren’t necessarily objecting to equal treatment for charter schools. Some, like Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, have argued that charters should have access to equitable funding. But, they say, the approach in HB 7069 would cripple districts’ finances, and lawmakers should find a funding approach that doesn’t come at the expense of any type of public school.

The struggle to place charters on equal footing with their district-run counterparts without harming districts isn’t going away, no matter what happens with the bill.