Ed funding issues are most pressing for school choice options

Despite the charge of uneven playing fields, it's charter schools and tax credit scholarships that face the greatest financial imbalances in Florida education.
Despite the charge of uneven playing fields, it’s charter schools and tax credit scholarships that face the greatest financial imbalances in Florida education.

With Florida now spending less per student than it did six years ago and less than at least three-fourths of the states, there is plausible case to be made for giving public education a raise. But Kathleen McGrory’s recent story on the status of a 2009 education adequacy lawsuit is a reminder that fiscal beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.

Let’s parse two of the claims in the suit:

The state is not putting up its fair share. In Florida, K-12 public education is funded by a combination of local and state taxes under a formula known as the Florida Education Finance Program. The complaint, filed four years ago, noted the state portion had dropped from 62 to 44 percent over the previous nine years. But that dramatic trend has made a similarly dramatic turn. This year, the state portion is back up to 57 percent – 58 percent if you count the state money spent on a scholarship for low-income students. This should ostensibly satisfy one of the major claims in the lawsuit. But the plaintiffs, which include Citizens for Strong Schools and Fund Education Now, are not likely be satisfied. The reason is the amount spent per student has remained basically unchanged – $6,873 in 2009-10 and $6,779 in 2013-14.

Charter schools and other options should be held to the same standards. It’s not entirely clear why a lawsuit aiming to enforce a constitutional provision requiring “adequate provision” for a “high quality” school system would take aim at learning options that are increasingly popular with Florida parents. But one of the attorneys, Neil Chonin, told McGrory that an important principle is at stake: “Our position is that there should be an even playing field.”

In a suit about financial resources, that’s a curious line to draw.

Charter schools receive less, per student, than a traditional public school. They receive between 95 and 98 percent of the basic operating money and almost none of local and state money that supports equipment, computers, books, maintenance and construction.

Other school choice options do even worse. The tax credit scholarship for low-income students this year receives 72 percent of the basic operating money and none of the rest. In 2011-12, the most recent year for which full statewide school spending data is available, the scholarship was worth only 45 percent of the total local, state and federal dollars spent on each public school student.

If he truly seeks a level playing field, Chonin will be hard-pressed to ignore such financial imbalance.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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