Florida's 650 charter schools and 3,600 traditional public schools would each get a pot of $75 million in state funds next year to spend on construction and maintenance projects, under a budget agreement the House and Senate appropriations chairmen announced Sunday afternoon.
The figure -- about the same as what Republican Gov. Rick Scott had asked for -- is $25 million more for each set of schools than lawmakers allocated this year.
It's also a compromise between Republican leaders in the House and Senate from what each chamber originally sought. In their budgets, both the House and Senate wanted to keep capital funding for traditional public schools level at $50 million. For charters, the House wanted $90 million, while the Senate budgeted nothing.
"From our perspective, it was kind of a guiding principle that we ought to be doing for the public system what we're doing for the charter school system, and we ultimately agreed on a level for funding both," Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said.
"The reality is we're up from last year," added House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes.
The equal funding level is a victory for charter school advocates, who lobbied to get at least as much in capital dollars as traditional schools. Charter schools are publicly funded but privately managed. Unlike district-run schools, charter schools often lease their facilities, rather than build them.
In a statement this evening, the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents more than 200,000 students, "thanks the Legislature for the increase of $25 million in dollars to fund the cost of school facilities."
Supporters of conventional public schools are likely to be somewhat disappointed, although they're set to get more money this year than last. They had urged lawmakers to make up for years of reduced funding, when state capital money to charter schools far outweighed what conventional schools received.
The Florida School Boards Association said in a statement this evening that they are "very pleased" the Legislature is increasing funding for traditional schools.
"We agree that charter schools have some capital outlay needs that can and should be met with public funds. However, since charter schools are public schools, we believe that funding for charter school capital outlay should flow to facilities that are, or will be, public assets and for which there is public accountability for how and where public funds are spent," said Ruth Melton, FSBA's government relations director.
When accounting for local sources of capital funding -- which charter schools often don't benefit from -- conventional public schools receive, on average, about six times more in capital dollars per pupil than charter schools. (More here on that from Politifact.)
The budget agreement comes as House and Senate leaders are looking to change the policy of how capital funding is distributed to charter schools and how school districts spend the state and local capital dollars they receive. The House has yet to consider its plan on the floor. The full Senate could take up its own proposal on Monday -- which is now a part of a wide-ranging education policy bill (HB 7029).
Corcoran and Lee have yet to finalize the education budget, but they expect to do that either later this evening or Monday morning.
Budget leaders already have agreed on a 1 percent increase in operational funding for K-12 schools, but other budeget issues have yet to be resolved.
"In education, I think we're very, very close," Corcoran said this afternoon.
Although the "Best & Brightest" teacher bonuses remain contentious in the Senate, Lee said Sunday that "we are going to agree to fund it at some level."
"That's not going to be the hang-up," Lee said.
Some senators are vocally opposed to continuing the bonus program through budget language, which was how the program was enacted last year. Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, last week said that tactic was "expanding on a dangerous precedent that President Haridopolos started in 2011."
Former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican, was widely criticized at the time for agreeing to enact dozens of policies through implementing bills at the end of session.
In response to Legg's comments, Lee told reporters Sunday: "What we're doing in this budget process is very different than talking about an implementing bill or a conforming bill issue on an issue that wasn't heard in Senate committees or something of that nature."
"The 'Best & Brightest' was heard. Clearly it's controversial; there's no question about that, but we're making funding decisions in this budget that are deferential to the Senate and that are deferential to the House," Lee said. "I know there are going to be things in the budget that all members would prefer not to see in the budget, but this is a collaboration of 160 individual members with 160 different opinions of what is the best thing to do for Florida, and we're trying to meld all that together in negotiation."