02/25/2021 01:57 PM EST
TALLAHASSEE — Schools of Hope, a school choice program championed by Florida Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran, is facing a nearly 20 percent budget cut this year just as the operation is starting to grow.
Gov. Ron DeSantis is recommending a $50 million cut for the program in the face of massive statewide budget scale-backs triggered by the coronavirus pandemic. Lawmakers in the meantime are attempting to find new ways to send money to Hope, which would still have more than $200 million if the Republican governor’s proposed cut is carried out.
“The Governor supports the continuation of the Schools of Hope program and believes the over $200 million in carry forward funds are sufficient to support current and impending projects,” wrote Cody McCloud, press secretary for DeSantis, in a statement to POLITICO.
The possible cuts come as the program, which is devised to lure more high-performing charter schools to the state, aims to open some 53 Hope schools in the next five years.
The state Legislature since 2017 has allocated $320 million for Schools of Hope, money that is largely meant to entice charter school companies to open facilities near persistently low-performing public schools or in a Florida Opportunity Zone — an underserved area designated for economic growth.
About $290 million of that cash is obligated, according to the Florida Department of Education, including $53 million that already went to traditional public school campuses for services such as tutoring, counseling and afterschool programs. Another $100 million is earmarked for a revolving loan program to help charters build campuses and pay for startup expenses, and $13 million is set aside for Somerset Academy Inc., which took over operations of schools in Jefferson County four years ago.
Corcoran created the school choice program while he was serving as a powerful GOP House speaker. It has experienced a slow ramp-up, but Schools of Hope appeared to be on the verge of substantial expansion — at least before DeSantis proposed the $50 million cut.
To date, Florida has only opened three official Hope schools, which are run in Miami by San Francisco-based nonprofit KIPP, or the Knowledge is Power Program.
Two more Hope campuses are expected to open in east Tampa this fall under the management of a Texas company, IDEA Public Schools. These schools will enroll some 1,000 students next year as IDEA sets its sights on eventually opening 32 campuses in Florida across three different school districts.
IDEA in September received $8 million from the Hope loan fund to buy property in Tampa, according to the Department of Education. And over the last 18 months, IDEA has been preparing principals and teachers while putting the final touches on bus routes and ordering supplies like desks and textbooks, Adam Miller, vice president of advancement for IDEA Public Schools, said in a statement to POLITICO.
“None of this would be possible without the Schools of Hope program,” wrote Miller, who previously led the Florida Department of Education's Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice for about six years.
For 2021-22, Corcoran sought an additional $40 million for Schools of Hope in an early Department of Education budget request. This cash would be used to fund the program and the loans for Hope operators, paving the way to open four new campuses and supporting the eventual operation of 40 other schools through 2026, according to the agency.
Florida is projected to have 53 Hope schools by 2026-27 enrolling some 47,690 students through KIPP, IDEA and Florida-based Mater Academy, according to documents provided to POLITICO. The state has also approved Democracy Prep, a New York charter school company, as a Hope operator.
But with a $50 million cut on the table, those plans are at risk of being scaled back. Florida lawmakers, however, have some ideas to open new funding avenues for Schools of Hope.
Lawmakers in both chambers are proposing legislation — FL HB1061 (21R) and the more recently filed FL SB1622 (21R) — that would introduce numerous changes for Hope, including allowing the charter schools to draw coveted state capital outlay dollars for construction. These dollars could be used for leasing property, building renovations and even technology. Hope operators support the legislation.
“As we look to expand the number of students empowered by our robust curriculum — which has proven critical to our students’ academic success — we urge state legislators to support HB 1061 while continuing to invest in the Schools of Hope fund so we can keep serving students with proven opportunities to learn and succeed,” wrote Brett Kimmel, executive director of KIPP Miami, in a statement to POLITICO.
Democrats and teachers unions largely oppose school choice expansion in Florida and were vocal opponents of Schools of Hope during its inception. The Legislature chose not to spend any additional money on the program during the 2020 session after expanding the areas open to Hope operators the previous year, which was tied to the Opportunity Zones created by President Donald Trump’s 2017 tax law.
School choice, including Schools of Hope, is slated to be a major GOP priority for 2021 when lawmakers convene the upcoming legislative session starting next week.