Letter to Governor Rick Scott
May 17, 2017
Dear Governor Scott:
As the constitutional officers and elected officials closest to the students and parents choosing to attend the public schools operated by the School Board of Hillsborough County, and the taxpayers upon whom we rely, we want to thank you for the support you have offered from the very first step in the process of creating the 2017-2018 budget. Unfortunately, the K-12 public education budget products do not reflect your unwavering support of our students. One of the most problematic products of the process is the so-called public education conforming bill, HB 7069.
We are asking that you veto HB 7069.
Based on a conservative understanding of the requirements of the legislative process, HB 7069 is not a conforming bill. First, it is a mammoth spending bill, and includes nearly half a billion dollars of appropriations, most of which are directed at experiments that may not generate a return on investment to the taxpayers. Second, HB 7069 is the classic poorly constructed Legislative Train, amalgamating over two dozen, often un-related bills, including some that had no hearing and one that was killed in a Senate Committee. The results of this type of policy-making is never transparent, fails to inspire public confidence except among the special interests who promoted the specific item, and rarely produces public policy that stands the test of time. Only a few minor portions of the bill modify statutes to conform them to provisions in the budget.
Overall, this legislation promotes policies that are detrimental to students and the teachers who serve them tirelessly every day. The legislation is allegedly a budget conforming bill, but functions as an appropriations bill and funds programs that received little legislative and public scrutiny before being passed by the Legislature. The policy and budget provisions together bypass major legislative recommendations and policy initiatives that you have supported and championed since you entered office.
One of the major policy changes concerns the distribution and use of federal Title I trust fund revenue. These changes affect all school districts. Title I is a federal program that provides funds to school districts to serve economically disadvantaged students or students in poverty. School districts are required to send dollars directly to schools that have 75% or more of the students who are economically disadvantaged.
The bill establishes the threshold for identifying eligible schools to not exceed the threshold established by the school districts for the 2016-2017 school year or the statewide percentage of economically disadvantaged students (@ 60%). The language continues to put district-wide services at risk, particularly those allowing districts to target services to the lowest performing schools.
Programs for students and their families that are at risk include:
- Summer school and before and after school tutoring.
- Extended school day programs.
- STEM academies and other programs that meet the needs of at risk students.
- Instructional strategies for low performing schools.
- Salary incentives to attract and retain teachers in Title I schools
- Professional development
- Parent engagement activities (most districts provide greater services than the legislation allows)
The language dilutes funding and precludes a district from targeting services on a district-wide basis that enables more students to be more efficiently served with public dollars.
In another major policy experiment unrelated to the 2017-2018 General Appropriations Act, the legislation requires school districts to appropriate their discretionary capital millage to charter schools. While there are some provisions in the bill that would first deduct debt service and apply any applicable legislative appropriation, the requirement to appropriate discretionary millage to charter schools is problematic for school districts, local property tax payers, and overall bad policy for the state. When charter schools were first established, proponents claimed that charter schools would educate students for less money and that capital funds would never be requested. As charter schools grew, the demand by charter operators for, and subsequent appropriation of capital dollars through the General Appropriation Act became a reality.
Until this legislation, the statutory language has been permissive and a few districts choose to appropriate their discretionary millage with charter schools, but it is appropriately a local decision. This legislation makes it mandatory. This discretionary millage is the major non-voted source of revenue for school districts to pay for the maintenance, repair, and insurance of schools, and purchase school buses and acquire and replace needed equipment. Districts deferred maintenance and repairs and purchases during the Great Recession. Even with the economic recovery, the backlog of needs go unmet. Mandating districts to share with charter schools further defers maintenance and repair of an important taxpayer owned asset – public schools.
Charter school proponents like to frame the issue by advocating that the money should follow the child. However, capital dollars do not follow the child; they follow the need. Regular public schools do not provide funds to a school that has a new HVAC system when the school across the district needs a new HVAC system. The dollars are allocated based on the maintenance and repair needs. The needs overwhelmingly outweigh the funds generated by the discretionary millage.
A school district may not build a new public school unless there is student capacity for that school. We cannot build a STEM academy, performing arts magnet, or a fundamental school unless there is a need for the student capacity in the school, and we can only build it in the area where there is that demonstrated need. A charter school, on the other hand, can open the same program advocated by the regular public school and locate it anywhere in the district. In addition, a charter school can open across the street from a high performing school. Not only does this give charter schools an unfair advantage, but it is not a prudent expenditure of limited taxpayer money.
There is also another unfortunate nexus in this bill. This bill contains language that in fact removes the authority of school districts to deny the replication, duplication, or establishment of charter schools. With that comes a totally unfettered demand for capital outlay funds because now they have access to local tax dollars, in essence allowing taxation without representation of local voters.
Governor, the Legislature has written a series of blank checks of totally unlimited amounts payable to charter school operators and drawn on the bank accounts of the local property taxpayers. And as a final unfortunate confluence of fiscally irresponsible outcomes, there is absolutely no requirements that the taxpayers will have an asset that they, the taxpayers will own. This alone justifies a veto for this bill.
The bill establishes schools of hope, or charter schools, as a mechanism for assisting persistently low-performing schools. However, there is no requirement that the school of hope serve even a single student enrolled in the low-performing school or be located within a reasonable distance from such school, a distance that seems accessible to families with virtually no means. A school of hope operator does not necessarily have to be a high performing school or have been successful in serving students in persistently low-performing schools. In addition, teachers and administrators do not have to be certified.
A school of hope must submit a “notice of intent” to a school district in which a persistently low-performing school has been identified by the State Board of Education. Then, the school district is mandated to enter into a performance-based agreement to open schools to serve students in an area within five miles of a persistently low performing school. The initial contract is for 5 years. The school district is basically cut out. There is little to no ability to negotiate an agreement to ensure that there is a need for the school. There, in fact, could be other schools, programs or services that are meeting the needs or planned to meet the needs of students in the persistently low-performing school. This gives schools of hope the ability and funds when a need has not necessarily been established. Finally, the schools of hope could duplicate without demonstrated need. There is little oversight and accountability for schools of hope.
The legislation provides that 25 district schools are eligible to compete for schools of hope funding (less than 1 per district). There are at least 115 eligible schools and districts only have the chance to serve 25 schools and receive up to $2,000 per student after an extensive application review and approval process before the State Board of Education. A similar process is not required of non-district schools of hope.
These policy issues are just a few of the major initiatives contained in HB 7069. The legislation also incorporates provisions from various bills that had been considered during session. Not all were heard in committee and the language relating to annual contracts died in a Senate committee.
The Best and Brightest Teacher Scholarship Program is both a policy and budget provision. It is unknown why this payment is referred to as a “scholarship.” It bears no relationship to a commonly understood meaning for the word scholarship. It is simply a salary bonus, and transparency would seem to require it is called what it is, not what it isn’t. First, the program was substantially modified but the changes do not go into effect until 2020. The scholarship for teachers is $6,000. The program is also expanded to include a Best and Brightest Principal Scholarship that provides a scholarship of $5,000 for eligible principals of Title I schools and a $4,000 scholarship for eligible principals of non-Title I schools.
The major component of the Best and Brightest Program is the bonus for the next three fiscal years to teachers rated highly effective for $1,200 and for teachers rated effective for $800. One legislature cannot bind future legislatures and these provisions bypass the major funding formula for public education – the Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP). Had these funds been included in the Base Student Allocation of the FEFP, teachers and principals would have received actual raises that increased their base salaries and increased their retirement. Instead, they will be provided a “scholarship” for one year with a promise that may or may not materialize for the next two fiscal years. Therefore, the FEFP could be bypassed for three fiscal years, and teachers’ salaries will fall further behind.
Overall HB 7069 appropriates $413,950,000 in recurring funds and $5 million in nonrecurring funds for a total of almost $419 million dollars. The bulk goes to the Best and Brightest Scholarship Program and the schools of hope. There are also appropriations for the Gardiner Scholarship Program, for the administration of paper/pencil assessments, and various studies.
It is clear the Legislature wants to focus attention on and improve the achievement of students in persistently low-performing schools through additional programs and funding. That is laudable, but the Legislature has said for as long as any can remember that more funds are not needed to improve student achievement. Apparently charter schools need more money to improve student achievement, but district operated schools do not need more money to provide the additional instruction and services the charter school operators claimed as the secret sauce leading to their success. Governor, the Florida Constitution we all swore to uphold calls for a uniform system of free public education. If this double standard isn’t a dual school system, we don’t know what else to call it. Additionally, this bill does not guarantee that these low-performing students will ever be served. In addition, there is little accountability or efficiency in the expenditure of limited taxpayer funds. The bonuses for teachers fall far short of the salary enhancements you have championed in the past. We respectfully request that you veto HB 7069.