“Were here today to report a theft," Tampa-area Democratic Congresswoman Kathy Castor said at the beginning of her press conference this morning in front of Wilson Middle School in South Tampa. "There has been a theft of tax dollars from our public schools."
Specifically Castor was alluding to the Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) trust fund that is dedicated towards maintaining public school buildings in Florida. According to the Miami Herald,
Last year, charter schools received $91 million from the PECO fund, while for the third year in a row, traditional public schools received nothing.
A proposal in the state House of Representatives would be a little better for public schools. It would provide $100 million in PECO funds for charter schools and $50 million for traditional public schools. The Senate plan is much more equitable - it will give charters $50 million and public schools $40 million.
Representative Castor distributed a list to reporters of over 17 public schools in Hillsborough County that have over $117 million in unfunded renovation projects needed right now, including Wilson. which she said had over $3.5 million required for infrastructure improvements. With one daughter in private school and another at in public school (Robinson High), Castor said she is angry as a parent about what's been happening with the PICO funds, and wants to fire up other parents as well.
"We owe it as taxpayers and parents to make sure that our children have adequate facilitates for learning," added Linda Kearschner with the Florida PTA. "Parents really need to pay attention to this issue. They really need to make an effort to educate themselves."
"Basically while we let our public schools decay, the charter schools get to play, and it’s a very unfair situation, it’s time for some change," added Hillsborough County Democratic Representative Mark Danish, who has been a school teacher for 31 years (he's current taking a leave of absence from his job at Benito Middle School until the end of the legislative session).
Danish and most other Democrats in Tallahassee have been on the losing end of the Legislature's insatiable desire to continue to build up charter schools in Florida in recent years. He emphasized today that he didn't have anything against those charter schools per se. He just wants the public schools to get their fair share of state funding when it comes to infrastructure upkeep.
"There’s plenty of good voucher schools out there," he said. "There’s a lot of good things that can be done. I’m all for public education. They always say 'it’s for the children.' I’m all for the children, but let’s not sacrifice the public school children because of that."
And he said that when Democrats recently argued for more funding for public school infrastructure, he was told by other Republicans on the House floor that local school districts - if need be - could "levy their finances, which basically means to raise the amount of money that the public schools get from the public. And this isn’t what we’re supposed to be doing in a year of surpluses," Danish surmised.
Greeting Castor and company this morning for the news conference were three supporters of the charter school movement in Florida. One of those supporters was Catherine Durkin Robinson, a former CL contributor who now a political organizer with with Step Up For Students, which administers the voucher scholarship program. She said she was there "to represent low income families and that they should not be forgotten."
When asked if she had an issue with the theme of today's press conference, Robinson agreed that "It would be great that the money we saved the state can be redirected to help the public schools."