After Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his 2015-2016 “Keep Florida Working” budget, Alachua County public school educators voiced concerns over the distribution of funds allotted to for-profit charter schools.
By definition, a charter school is a public school of choice that receives self-governing freedom and flexibility from both state and local regulations in exchange for greater accountability to raise student achievement. The key characteristic is the combination of public funding with private management.
For the maintenance, repair and restoration of about 600 non-profit and for-profit charter schools in Florida, $100 million was set aside in Scott’s budget. In contrast, $164.6 million is being allotted for the same purposes to over 4,000 Florida public schools.
Under Scott’s budget, charter schools receive about $125,000 more per school.
According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, 67 percent of all charter schools in the country are independently run by non-profit, single site schools, while 13 percent are run by for-profit companies. The other 20 percent are run by non-profit organizations that run more than one charter.
Scott’s budget will allot over $25 million more than the previous scholastic year to both non-profit and for-profit charters alike. As a result, Alachua County public school educators like Susan Bowles, a kindergarten teacher at Lawton Chiles Elementary School, have voiced their concerns specifically over the money being allotted to for-profit charter schools.
“There are some good charter schools out there and some good charters in Alachua County,” Bowles said. “What I have a problem with are the for-profit charters. A lot of those are run by people who have a vested interest in real estate and are getting money from the state for their facilities when they actually already own them.”
Bowles said she is concerned about privatization, or transferring some responsibilities relating to education from the state to private interests. As a result of privatization, money that would be invested in public schools ultimately goes towards funding these for-profit institutions, she explained.
Sue Legg, the chair of the Florida Project on School Choice for the League of Women Voters of Alachua County, has expressed her own concern with the budget because she said it could further promote privatization on a statewide level.
“Privatization means that we are using state resources for charter schools that are essentially private schools,” Legg said. “They’re called public, but they’re privately owned.”
High turnover rates are a reality for teachers at for-profit charters because of the high costs involved in paying for facilities such as libraries and computer labs.
These teachers are ultimately put on at-will contracts, meaning they could be fired without a day’s notice. They end up working for a lower salary and fewer benefits, Legg said.
Alachua Learning Center’s administrative director Christian Rivera said money being allocated to these for-profit charters is necessary to the vitality of Title 1 public and non-profit charter schools such as the ALC.
As part of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, Title 1 is a federally funded program that aims to assist low-income and at-risk students by providing a suitable scholastic environment. For ALC, the problem lies in the lack of available space necessary to educate their students.
“Some of our teachers share classrooms,” Rivera said. “They’re doing the best they can with the space that we currently have. It’s because of their dedication that our middle school is one of the best in Alachua County.”
With Scott’s overall budget increase of $261 per student funding, Rivera would like to see technology upgrades in an effort to improve student education at ALC. There is a need for such upgrades, as many of ALC’s students do not have access to computers at home.
Even with such an increase per student, Bowles is worried that the distribution of funds being allotted to for-profit charter schools will prevent a large number of public schools from benefiting, even with the $164.6 million allocation.
“That’s the downside to investing in these kind of charter schools,” Bowles said. “Legislators have to understand that public schools are losing out on money. Schools are not a business. It’s about people. It’s about children.”