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Construction money could go to charter schools

By Ryan Dailey

News Service of Florida

April 17, 2023

TALLAHASSEE — A proposal that would require school districts to share local property-tax revenue with charter schools is teed up for consideration by the full House, after a committee debate Monday about whether it could bring “parity.”

Property taxes collected through discretionary 1.5-mill local levies go toward such things as constructing and renovating traditional public schools and buying land. Meanwhile, charter schools largely receive such money through the state budget.

The Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee voted 20-7 along party lines Monday to approve a bill (HB 1259) that would allow charter schools to receive part of the local money. Charter schools are public schools but often are run by private organizations.

“Eventually, over time, charter school students will be on parity with district public school students in terms of the 1.5 mills,” bill sponsor Jennifer Canady, R-Lakeland, said.

Under the bill, school districts would be required to share the money based on charter schools’ “proportionate share of total school district” enrollment. Charter school enrollment next fiscal year is projected to total 371,253 students, according to House analysts, representing about 13.6 percent of enrollment in public schools.

Canady said the bill would provide what she called a “five-year glide path,” which would phase in sharing the property-tax money.

The “glide path” would lead to districts sharing a portion of 20 percent of the money in the 2023-2024 fiscal year; a portion of 40 percent in the 2024-2025 fiscal year; a portion of 60 percent in 2025-2026; a portion of 80 percent in 2026-2027; and a portion of 100 percent in 2027-2028 and beyond.

Districts are expected to collect $4.4 billion from the 1.5-mill levy next fiscal year, according to a House staff analysis. Under the phased-in approach, they would provide a total of $55.9 million to charter schools next year.

“We have a sharing in this bill of 20 percent of the 1.5 mills,” Canady said, referring to the first year. “And so, this is the beginning of a way to make sure that charter school students, who are 70 percent minority and 51 percent (recipients of) free and reduced (price) lunch, get closer to parity in terms of the resources that are provided to them.”

But Democrats on the panel pushed back against such arguments.

Rep. Christine Hunchofsky, D-Parkland, pointed to different requirements and standards that traditional public schools must follow when building facilities.

“I think parity is great, but we don’t have parity in the requirements of building schools. The traditional public schools are held to a different building standard. They’re used as hurricane shelters. There are lots of other things going on,” Hunchofsky said.

But Rep. Alex Andrade, R-Pensacola, argued that student performance in charter schools outpaces performance in traditional schools and suggested that charter schools face harsher consequences for poor results.

“When charter schools have examples of financial impropriety, those charter schools cease to exist. The same cannot be said about government-run schools in Florida. So absolutely we should be working on parity. Because the safe bet is charter schools,” Andrade said.

Chris Moya, a lobbyist for Charter Schools USA, said purchases beyond construction-related costs that are allowed with the money would provide a direct benefit to students.

“Often, one of the uses permitted by law is actually software, tablets, technology. So, to be against this policy would be to say we want to continue the digital divide amongst minorities and poor students,” Moya told the House panel.

But House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, disagreed that the bill is geared toward benefiting students.

“This really is about the businesses, the contracts, the leases for these buildings. Not really school performance, not really providing the students with the things that they need,” Driskell said.

A similar bill (SB 1328) would need approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee before it could go before the full Senate.

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