Republican lawmakers seek capital funding changes to benefit charter schools, restrain public school districts

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Republican lawmakers in the Florida house are fast-tracking a proposal to make it easier for charter schools to obtain capital dollars, while changing the rules for how public school districts use taxpayer money to fund construction projects.

Education budget committee chairman Rep. Erik Fresen is spearheading the measure primarily to rein in the state’s 67 county school districts, which he argues have “glaringly and grossly” overspent on construction projects over the past 10 years, the Tampa Bay Times has reported.

“I don’t think school districts, as a norm, waste money on construction projects, but the numbers bear out… in certain instances, there have been unwise business decisions made on certain projects,” Fresen was quoted as saying.

The published report says his substitute version of an education bill that deals with facilities dollars (HB 873) would limit districts’ spending on capital costs — even if the district is using local revenue, such as a sales tax approved by county voters. Districts would be punished for going over the state-imposed cap; they would forfeit the next three years of capital-outlay dollars
from the state if they exceed it.

The proposed legislation would also force districts to allocate some of their local property tax to charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed, and would make these private schools eligible for state dollars sooner under revised eligibility criteria. (There is one charter school for about every six traditional public schools in Florida.)

Democrats and school officials were not happy with this proposal — asking  Republicans to slow down and take a more comprehensive look at capital funding to both charter and traditional public schools, the report says.

“We really need to tap the brakes on this, and I don’t know why it’s moving so quickly,” said Miami Beach Dem. Rep. David Richardson. “I think we need to take the time to understand the issues and get it right.”

The bill goes to the Education Committee next, before it could go to the House floor.

The newspaper report said charter school advocates — with support from some Republican lawmakers — are clamoring for an equal amount of capital dollars, although the money they’ve received in recent years has far outweighed what traditional public schools have received.

Several school superintendents spoke in defense of their districts. They said Fresen’s conclusions didn’t fairly weigh extenuating circumstances, such as costly repairs needed for aging facilities, expansions built to accommodate growing student populations or the use of local revenue voters approved as state aid declined, according to the published report.

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