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Miami-Dade School Officials Sought Compromise, Not Legal Battle, On Charters — And Might Get One

Walter Michot
Miami Herald
Lawmakers have crafted a compromise that would save school districts from having to share local construction funding with charter schools — at least for next year, if a new bill is enacted.";

The leaders of Miami-Dade County Public Schools opted to negotiate with state lawmakers — rather than sue — over a controversial new law that diverts millions in construction funding from traditional public schools to privately-run charter schools.

It looks like their strategic gamble could soon pay off — at least in the short term.

Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and school board members have been advocating for changes to last year’s House Bill 7069 during meetings with legislators in Tallahassee. Carvalho said at a recent school board meeting he was optimistic about the efforts but couldn't reveal much, since the negotiations were sensitive.

Now, the House is advancing a new omnibus education bill that would reverse House Bill 7069’s requirement that school districts share local funding for construction and facilities maintenance with charters. It's not clear if Miami-Dade officials endorse the proposed changes; Carvalho did not immediately return a request for comment on Wednesday.

More than a dozen school districts around the state — including those in Broward and Palm Beach counties — have challenged House Bill 7069, in large part for fear of losing up to tens of millions in construction dollars each year to charter schools. A judge recently denied the Palm Beach district's request to temporarily block that part of the law as the case proceeds, directing them to hand over the money to charter schools on Feb. 1, as required in statute.

But districts might not have to share that money in the future, under the new, nearly 200-page education bill that’s tied to the state House of Representatives’ budget plan for next year. In House Bill 7055, charters would get construction funding from the state treasury rather than local property taxpayers.

There’s a catch, though: The bill would establish a minimum threshold for how much construction funding charters would get every year, automatically adjusted annually for inflation. If lawmakers didn’t provide enough in state funding to meet the threshold in any given year, districts would have to make up the difference with the local tax dollars.

For 2018-19, House leaders have proposed providing $120 million in state construction funding to charter schools. That’s $70 million more than what charter schools got from the state for construction and maintenance during the current budget year; this year, traditional public schools and charter schools each got $50 million in state funding in addition to the local property tax dollars.

Under House Bill 7055, charter schools would be guaranteed to receive at least the same amount of money per student on average in future years as they get in 2018-19. If that base is established at $120 million next year, it would likely balloon in future years. That's because charter school enrollment is growing, and additionally, the bill would link funding levels to the Consumer Price Index, which is a measure of inflation.

It’s a pretty good deal for charter schools, especially in counties where districts don’t have much — or any — construction funding to share. House Bill 7069 required districts to give up local money to charters only after they’d already financed loan payments for past construction projects, a rule that assured the Legislature wouldn’t be forcing districts to default on their loans.

In total, districts generate nearly $3 billion a year in local property taxes for school construction. But under House Bill 7069, they had to share only about $91 million of it this year, because the rest was tied up in paying back debts.

Some districts — including in Lake and Polk counties — had so much debt, they weren’t able to give any construction funding to charter schools. Alternatively, districts in better financial shape had to give up much bigger proportions of their construction funding. Critics on both sides of the debate over charter schools called this formula inequitable.

So it appears House members would rather give charter schools a steady, guaranteed allocation of construction funding from the state than a portion of whatever districts have leftover after paying their bills.

And as for school districts, they wouldn’t lose any local construction funding next year. However, there would be no guarantee that lawmakers would allocate enough money to prevent losses in future years.

Conservative House leaders have already closely linked House Bill 7055 to the education budget by including a line in the House spending proposal that makes the main source of public school funding contingent upon the bill’s passage. (Rep. David Richardson, a Miami Beach Democrat who is running for Congress, proposed an amendment that would have deleted the language linking the budget and bill, but it was voted down on the House floor on Wednesday.)

Placing the construction funding compromise in House Bill 7055 provides another insurance policy: If Democrats were successful in their efforts opposing House Bill 7055, charter schools would get the $120 million that’s provided in the budget — $70 million more than the much-larger traditional public school sector — while still being allowed to share in the districts' local property tax dollars.

Meanwhile, Miami-Dade County school leaders have also pushed to change an aspect of House Bill 7069 that restricts how school district leaders are able to use federal Title I funds, which are for the poorest students.

House Bill 7069 limited how much power district administrators had over how to allocate Title I funding to schools — traditional public and charter. House Bill 7055 would loosen the new rules, allowing districts to target the neediest schools by using some Title I funding for before- and after-school programs, longer school days, instruction during the summer and “wrap-around” social services like health care or behavioral therapy.

House Bill 7055 came up on the House floor on Wednesday, and members were allowed to ask questions of its sponsors and propose amendments. The House is slated to vote on it on Thursday as part of the chamber's overall budget proposal.

The Senate is also expected to pass its budget plan this week, after which the two chambers will begin formal negotiations in hopes of reaching an agreement by the scheduled end of session, on March 9.

Jessica Bakeman is Director of Enterprise Journalism at WLRN News, and she is the former senior news editor and education reporter. Her 2021 project "Class of COVID-19" won a national Edward R. Murrow Award.
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