School Board lashes out at trends in state education

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By Sean Arnold

A budget workshop held during the June 27 School Board of Levy County meeting became a catalyst for the venting of frustrations by Board members over trends in public education at the state level.

As School Board of Levy County Finance Director Anna Kroll presented projections for the upcoming budget, highlighting changes under the controversial House Bill 7069, which was signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in June, Schools Superintendent Jeff Edison and the Board recounted their objections to recent education policy.

The Board is scheduled to hold tentative budget hearings at 6 p.m. on July 10 and July 25, before adopting the final millage rate and budget on Sept. 12.

The criticisms have come from all around the state from public school advocates, and it’s basically a three-pronged critique: Florida is promoting policies that excessively favor charter schools and their students at the expense of their public counterparts; it’s further restricting the discretion of local school districts, both in financing and curriculum; and the state’s budgeting of education has come under criticism for its historically low rates of funding for a non-recessionary period.

At the meeting, Board chair Chris Cowart spotlighted a new requirement that sets the funding for charter students at a higher rate than public school students. The portion in question is the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) formula used for determining how much funding per full-time student is distributed from a school district to a school. In the new preliminary budget outline, reflecting Kroll’s interpretation of HB 7069, each charter school student is counted as a factor of 1.5 in the base student allocation, while the public students are listed at 1.085 – a 28-percent difference.

“A kid in Bronson, Fla., a kid in Cedar Key, a kid in Chiefland, in Yankeetown, in Williston, they count 1.0825,” Cowart said. “If that kid goes to a charter school, he counts as 1.5. And they say there’s no advantage for charter schools.”

The bill has come under attack for requiring districts to share pre-determined capital outlay millage with charter schools, as well as its double standards in regulations between charter and public schools, including a provision that requires 20 minutes of recess per day at public schools while none for charter schools.

“None of us would disagree that 20 minutes of recess is not a bad thing,” Cowart said. “But at the same time, if you add 20 minute of recess, where are you going to take away from, because we’re not getting more funding to extend the day.”

Also coming under scrutiny are what critics see as insufficient requirements for charter schools that receive funding under a new “Schools of Hope” program that sets aside public funding for charter schools that take in students from failing schools.

Critics have also pointed out the close links between the bill’s main authors and the charter school industry, most notably that House Speaker Richard Corcoran is married to an operator of a charter school.

While total state funding will be up by around $144,000 for the Levy School District, a reduction in local funding combined with the transfer of more funding sources to the general fund and the various scholarship programs that districts are required to fund will deplete most of the gains by the beginning of the of the fiscal year.

The Board and Superintendent Jeff Edison discussed the need for a change in approach in dealing with the state when it comes to education, including getting involved at an earlier stage in the legislative process, and issuing grades on representatives and senators based on their support of education.

“Before it gets to Tallahassee, because it’s over by then,” Edison said. “The long-range picture for the school district is not good if it stays the way it does.”

“The writing’s on the wall when they value a kid that goes to a charter school more than a kid that goes to a good old-fashioned public school,” SBLC member Cameron Bell said, with vocal agreement from fellow SBLC member Paige Brookins. “That’s a slap in the face. I’m all for going up there and meeting with them, but I don’t want to go up and shake their hand and tell them, ‘Hey, you’re doing a good job.’

“If you’re kid goes to a public school, the state of Florida is against your kid. Let’s call them on it.”

Board member Brad Etheridge lamented the increasing lack of discretion districts and schools are afforded.

“The total dollars is not what’s wrong,” he said. “What’s wrong is the state of Florida telling us how we’re going to spend the money. Discretionary funds are less than five percent of the total budget. Financially they’re dictating what we do in the county, and they’re not very good at it.

“It makes me sick that they’re leveraging us against charter schools. I don’t have a problem calling them out. Our state has not funded education since the lottery. We have enough money to fund what we need in Levy County if they let us fund it in the areas that need it.”

Edison said districts like Levy, which are less likely to have additional tax revenue sources, face more economic pressure than accountability pressure when it comes to the influx of charter schools. He differentiates community-based charter schools, which he says includes the County’s pair of charter schools – Whispering Winds Charter School and Nature Coast Middle School – from what he calls “for-profit” charter schools, citing the latter as the true benefactors of the new law. He also pointed to the exclusion of an “enrichment clause” that was in the original bill, which set a strict separation between those who lease charter school sites and those who operate charter schools.

“Someone setting up a charter school can purchase the property from themselves or a family relative, with tax dollars,” Edison said. “Three years out, they could default on it and own a piece of prime real estate on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Edison and Board members vowed to maintain good relations with the County’s charter schools, and suggested their district do more to point out the accomplishments of past and present Levy County public school students. Board member Rick Turner said an equal amount of effort should be aimed at informing the public of the state’s treatment of charter schools versus public schools.

“Our philosophy on the charter schools: they’re our kids,” Edison said. “So we’re going to do everything we can for their education.”

Cowart said the size of HB 7069, at 274 pages, indicates how many unpopular items were included in the bill, and complicates the support for the bill’s substance. He applauded its removal of Algebra 2 from the End-of-Course tests, which go into the schools’ grades, as well as the retainment of the digital technology funding, though some of that has been shifted to the general fund.

“How many things didn’t get voted on or were voted down in committees and then got crammed into that bill?” Cowart asked rhetorically. “Speaker Richard Corcoran feels the legislature has a much better finger on the pulse of our education system than our local school boards, city councils and county commissions. Funding education is their constitutional duty, yet they keep eroding our local control.”

SBLC attorney David Delaney added to the chorus of criticisms, arguing that Florida is trying to do too much with too little.

“(Florida) is trying to run three school systems on less money – charter schools, the scholarship programs and then the traditional public schools,” he said. “Most of these folks in Tallahassee ran on an anti-red tape, anti-government regulation agenda, but that’s not the values that they’re living out once they get up there.

“They’re deliberately confusing the difference between for-profit public schools and community charter schools that serve a specific population,” he later added. “There is also no data whatsoever that says charter schools perform better than public schools. So they’re getting more funding on a per-student basis and they’ve got less regulation.”

Delaney also pointed out that the tax credit scholarships offered in Florida are helping transfer public funds to private schools, as corporations earn tax credits by donating money to non-profit scholarship funding organizations, which could include religious and other private schools.

The school board next meets in Bronson on July 11 at 6 p.m.