House committee approves charter funding bill

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A bill that would require Florida school districts to share tax revenues with charter schools is headed to the House floor.

The House Ways and Means Committee on Thursday voted 15-2 to approve a package of tax issues (PCB WMC 19-02), a section of which addresses charter schools being denied funding from voter-approved local tax referendums.

In November, voters in eight Florida counties approved extra taxes for public schools. Four of the counties – Alachua, Lee, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach – made formal decisions prior to the election not to share the revenue from tax increases with charter schools, which are district-approved, publicly funded schools managed by private entities.

“We need to remind everybody that charter schools are public schools. They are written in statute as a public school,” said Rep. Blaise Ingoglia (R-Spring Hill), who voted for the bill. “I think it is a little disingenuous, to say the least, that you have some of these counties and school districts basically writing the referendums in such a way that they are just trying to skirt Florida law. That, quite frankly, is offensive. …

“We did not hear one piece of testimony whatsoever from anybody from a school board. I think that’s telling. They know deep down that what they attempted to do with cutting out these charter schools was absolutely wrong, unethical, and immoral …”

Miami-Dade has said it will give charters tax revenues to fund security upgrades, but not to boost teacher salaries. In February, House Speaker José Oliva (R-Miami Lakes) sent a letter to district officials saying their decision not to share all the new revenues amounted to “deception” of the voters. Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has insisted that the district’s intent on how to spend the funds has always been clear.

In Palm Beach, three charter schools have sued the district, alleging they are being illegally excluded from a share of the new property tax revenues. In 2017, the Indian River County school district settled a similar lawsuit after a judge ruled in favor of the charter schools when it agreed to share $2.5 million in local tax dollars with its charter schools.

Supporters of the charter provision argued it was needed to “clarify” legal uncertainty surrounding the sharing of tax revenues. It would require districts starting in the next budget year to give charter schools equitable funding. Districts that fail to comply could see the state reduce their funding equal to the amount they withhold from charters.

Rep. Anna Eskamani (D-Orlando) submitted several amendments to the charter funding part of the bill, none of which passed. The amendments included a provision that would require charter schools to spend their portion of the tax revenues for the voter-authorized use of the levy. (For example, money for teacher salaries couldn’t be used for other purposes.)

Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Naples) questioned whether that was necessary because it was unclear whether charters already are allowed to spend on other purposes.

“I’m a firm believer in school choice,” said Eskamani, one of the two “no” votes. “But I believe in also supporting the parents who choose traditional public education. … I just hope we continue to set an even playing field so that we have the same flexibility charter schools have that traditional public school can have that fun too.”

Donalds, who voted for the bill, focused on families, not the kinds of schools.

“The sharing of local additional funding by school districts, not so much with charter schools per se, I know that’s the apparatus we all talk about, but it’s frankly (sharing) with the students who still live in that county, whose parents are being taxed in that county,” he said.

“That those funds are also available for those students, that’s really the purpose of that language. It’s something that’s definitely needed so we have clarity on how that’s going to affect all the children that go to school, whether it’s in a traditional public or in a charter school.”

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