The ugly truth behind school choice in Florida

By Diane Schrier from the Ocala Star banner

Choice in education. It’s been raised lately as a holy grail by some, but
the truth is far deeper and uglier. There is no real choice anymore in
education. Instead, small groups of charter and private schools are being
lavishly gifted with a large proportion of the money.

The victims are clear. They are the students and the adults in
the community who have to pay more because funds are being handed out to
corporations, hedge funds, real estate agencies and other interest groups,
ignoring the fact that the education bucket is not limitless, or just not
caring about the consequences. But what is choice? If it were simple, there would be no
discussion. Most feel that parents have the right to choose what school their
children go to. However, the real issues involve money, influence, money,
accountability, money, safe schools, money and transparency.
What it does not involve are people yelling out one word, as
though it was a religious cause, without 
understanding the complex issues that
underlie it. This is a multi-billion dollar issue.
Education serves children. They are not data numbers, but
living, breathing humans who deal with all the pressures of the adult world,
but without the ability to control more than a few aspects of their lives. The
educational system is meant to help them grow to adulthood with the ability to
have healthy, strong futures. The Florida Constitution states plainly that a
free, strong, high-quality public education is a Florida value.
Charter schools are a great money-making arena. Originally
designed as places for alternative education for those who needed special help
or a different type of school, the idea was excellent and far-reaching. These
schools, mostly run by the school districts, have transparency and
accountability and are necessary factors in education today. Money is earmarked
for them, but they are district schools and serve a need.
There is a second type of charter school. These are for-profit
and they tell a different story. They are for-profit ventures to make money for
their investors.
A few are excellent and fill a niche. However, twice as many
charter schools fail as do public schools. They also have very interesting schemes to increase the bottom
line. One large Florida group, owned by a real estate firm, has the schools
rent their land from the firm. The real estate firm also formed its own charter
management organization to run the schools. Leases run approximately 20-25
percent of educational revenue, while the management firm receives $450 per
student to manage the student. These are noneducational expenses.
This one firm also has its own bank to lend its schools money,
which must be repaid with interest. To ensure its protection, the
brother-in-law of the owner is in the Legislature and has a say on educational
policy. While other charter school organizations are not quite so blatant, they
are just as hungry for public taxpayer money.
Last February, I attended a State Board of Education meeting.
Lawyers from the Seminole and Orange school boards asked the members to deny
the applications for charter schools from the Charter School Organization. The
applications had been denied the previous fall by the school boards. The
charter schools appealed to the Charter School Organization, which approved the
charters, overriding the desires of the local school districts.
Marion County has been lucky so far, as we’ve managed to be
able to keep out most of these organizations through implementation of special
programs when needed. However, that will change this year. A new application
form has been approved by the Legislature streamlining the process for charter
schools. This opens up Marion County, since the power to say no will be further
diminished. State superintendents have been protesting this.
Thus, for-profit charter schools get Race to the Top money for
starting new schools, management money, lease money, interest money, student
money and PECO funds. PECO funds are designated for maintenance and operations
of public schools. During the last four years, however, all of this money has
gone to charter schools. This year, more PECO money is going to private schools
than public schools — again.
Private-school vouchers are being funded by money donated to
one single organization called Step Up for Children. To increase private-school
revenue, corporations that donated money to the fund are being given tax
credits equal to their donation. Since Florida does not have an income tax,
these taxes are a large part of the basis of education, public safety and all
other programs. This law will raise close to $1 billion per year over the next
few years — money that will be taken from public school funding. While some
private schools, especially in Marion County, are excellent, others are in
strip malls, offer minimal education, untrained teachers, no trained personnel
for special needs, and no accountability or transparency.
There is school choice and there is the destruction of public
education choice. The Florida Legislature is choosing to move down the path of
destruction. However, most children attend public schools. Voters will need to
make a decision.
Diane Schrier is a teacher at Fort King Middle School, a
candidate for the School Board and state public policy chairwoman for The American
Association of University Women.

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