Florida charter school bill, dead for now, could have harmed school districts | Opinion

When parents of school-age children move to Florida, many are pleasantly surprised by the wide array of choices available for their kids’ education. Among the options, Florida has 726 charter schools, which are tuition-free public schools that are spared from many of the regulations governing traditional public schools.

Florida also has 23 “conversion charter schools.” Most had been low-performing public schools that converted to charter status at the behest of parents, teachers or the school district itself.

Of great concern this year was a bill (HB 109) that until recently was advancing in the House. It would’ve added Florida’s 400+ municipalities to the list of entities that may convert existing public schools to charter schools, but unfortunately that’s not all it would have done.

Dead for now, the bill is supported by powerful special interests and may well emerge again next year, so it deserves further scrutiny. Under this bill, city officials could’ve engineered a series of votes by parents to take over any or all of a school district’s facilities within their municipal boundaries and convert them into charter schools.

Although charter schools are organized as not-for-profit entities, many of them give for-profit companies lucrative contracts to provide managerial services, so it’s not a surprise that such companies were furiously lobbying for this bill.

At first glance it’s a mystery why a city might want to oversee schools, directly or indirectly, at a time when mobs of angry parents so often show up at school board meetings to yell about issues ranging from book bans to bus routes.

On second glance, however, mystery solved: A provision in the bill says that if a school district’s enrollment dips by 1% or more for two consecutive years, then the state must designate the school district’s vacant real estate as surplus.

The bill then provides that surplus property must be made available, free of charge, to be used as conversion charter schools. If the property isn’t being used as a charter school within six months, it’s to be made available for affordable housing or else sold with written permission of the potential charter school’s sponsor i.e. the city.

Now many of Florida’s municipalities do a fine job of maintaining public safety and providing efficient urban services that enhance the quality of life for their residents.

Unfortunately, however, some of Florida’s cities have become cesspools of political corruption. Worse, such corruption may be on the rise because several of the watchdogs that historically have alerted the public to corruption and conflicts of interest have become weakened in recent years.

In corrupt cities, it’d be easy to imagine that there may be officials who’d like to exploit the charter school conversion process to acquire large parcels of school district acreage at no cost to the city and make it available to favored developers.

Moreover, in this bill the enrollment declines that are the trigger mechanism for declaring school property surplus are ridiculously low, as if designed to facilitate this kind of property transfer.

Year-to-year enrollment fluctuations are not unusual. In addition to demographic waves such as the baby booms and busts, enrollment can be impacted by factors ranging from an influx of migrants to disasters such as the recent pandemic or 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, which temporarily decimated schools south of Miami.

In a growing state such as Florida, enrollment dips are often quite temporary, so some school districts have prudently acquired vacant land for their future needs. This bill would’ve allowed state agencies and cities to intervene and second-guess this practice of the state’s 67 countywide school districts, which under Article IX of the state constitution are placed in charge of public education.

Given that powerful special interests supported this bill, it could easily re-emerge as a threat to Florida’s efficient and generally effective system of K-12 education, so supporters of public education need to remain vigilant.