Lawmakers argue: Money isn't the answer to failing schools. In Jefferson County, extra millions made a difference.

By Jessica Bakeman

Jefferson County has been an effective anecdote for Republican state lawmakers. They’ve used the long-struggling school district there to bolster their argument that the cure for public school failure is private intervention — not more money.

They’ve often pointed out: For years, the small, rural North Florida district spent more per student than most others statewide, and still, its schools failed.

Enter Somerset Academy, Inc., a South Florida charter school network that took over Jefferson County in the fall of 2017, creating the state’s first all-charter school district. The schools’ long-abysmal test scores and school grades quickly improved, bolstering lawmakers’ argument.

What’s obscured in the misleading narrative, though, is that Somerset’s new charter schools in Jefferson County have had millions of dollars more to work with than what was previously available to the traditional public school district there. Some of those resources were delivered by state lawmakers with financial links to Somerset and its for-profit contractor, Academica.

As the charter-district begins a third school year in Jefferson County, state policymakers have already declared it “a success story” worth replicating. A law passed during the 2019 legislative session sets the stage for a massive expansion of privately run charters statewide based on that perception of success.

Learn more about the Legislature's recent expansion of "schools of hope." »

Lawmakers blasted Jefferson’s traditional public schools for spending too much.
The new charter schools are spending more

In 2017, several state lawmakers pointed to Jefferson County in explaining the need for more radical policies to address failing public schools.

“I don't want to hear about the fact that we're not investing in these schools,” said then-Rep. Manny Diaz, Jr., a powerful Republican from Hialeah who's now a state senator, during a legislative committee meeting in March 2017. “Jefferson County received $14,000 per student, including federal funds. They still could not make it for those students.”

“Funding alone is not the answer,” said Rep. Chris Latvala, a Clearwater Republican, at the same meeting. “That was clear when we spent $14,000 per student trying to get [Jefferson County] turned around, and it didn't work.”

Latvala sponsored an early version of the law now known as “schools of hope.” It offers millions of dollars to attract charter schools into neighborhoods where traditional public schools have failed for years.

Eventually, Somerset's charter schools in Jefferson would be the first to receive the new "schools of hope" designation under state law.

That $14,000 figure — which lawmakers claimed was how much Jefferson County’s traditional public schools were spending per student — is close. According to state Department of Education estimates, the district spent about $13,250 per K-12 student in 2016-17, the final year before the charter school takeover. The state average for school districts’ per-student spending that year was $10,500.

The state does not publish data for how much money charter schools spend per student, as it does annually for traditional public schools. And the education department did not fulfill WLRN’s request for a comparable number for Somerset’s two charter schools in Jefferson County in 2017-18. But according to the charter network’s own financial audit, Somerset Academy Jefferson County spent about $12.1 million on an average of 731 students in its first year — a per-student cost of nearly $16,600.

In the first year of the charter-school takeover, Somerset Academy Jefferson County earned Cs for its elementary, middle and high schools. The second year, the middle and high schools maintained their Cs, while the elementary dropped to a D. Before Somerset, the traditional public schools earned Ds and Fs for about a decade. Thus far, Somerset has gotten better results than the traditional public school district did before, but it has done so by spending significantly more money.

Spending Chart

Lots of extras, but still not enough: ‘You can’t just continue to sink money into something’

When Somerset Academy moved into Jefferson County, administrators started by renovating the school buildings. They refinished the gym floor and installed a culinary lab to prepare students for careers in the food-service industry.

The charter school network replaced the administration and decided to keep only about half of the teachers and staff. Then Somerset boosted teacher salaries in Jefferson County to among the highest in the state, offering higher starting pay than teachers earn in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Administrators also hired more than a dozen security guards.

Charter school leaders provided free uniforms to students and offered before- and after-school care.

Somerset kicked off the new school year with a barbecue for 1,500 people. When Somerset Jefferson’s football team was scheduled to play against another Somerset school in South Florida, the network paid to show the Jefferson County players around Miami and take them to a Heat game. Somerset has spent $100,000 replacing band instruments, according to Principal Cory Oliver.

In 2017-18, Somerset Jefferson paid close to $327,000 in fees to Academica, a Miami-based for-profit company that provides administrative services to charter schools, the audit shows. Academica provided help with offering online courses, designing the school facilities, hiring staff, budgeting, complying with education regulations and more.

Academica is also affiliated with Doral College, an unusual private school in Miami-Dade County that offers college-level courses to charter school students. Diaz is the school’s chief operating officer. Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores was the school’s first president.

In the early months of Jefferson County’s transformation, Diaz chaired and participated in House education budget committee meetings during which members examined the public school system’s finances before and after the charter takeover. During an October 2017 meeting, Diaz posed a question to Doug Rodriguez, who was working as a consultant to Somerset Jefferson. Diaz is also president of Doral College — so, Diaz’s boss in his job outside the Legislature.

“There’s probably a lot of members on this panel listening to all the things that have been done. … A lot of them are probably thinking there’s this pipeline of money — extra money — that is now coming in, and that’s how Somerset is able to do this,” Diaz said. “Can you explain if you’re receiving any additional … funds from the state, and how you’re using it, if so?”

Rodriguez responded: “The only funding we were receiving is what the district was currently getting, minus some money that we’re not entitled to. … Our dollars are basically the same.” He added that Somerset received some startup grant funding.

But there are several funding sources that helped make the Somerset takeover possible — money that the traditional public schools in Jefferson did not have access to before:

Even that extra money wasn’t enough, though. During the 2019 legislative session, Somerset Jefferson asked for more. Administrators told legislative education committees in February that running the schools was an expensive undertaking that could prove to be financially unsustainable.

“We absolutely need the additional funding, with things like ‘schools of hope,’” Rodriguez, the Somerset representative and Doral College president, told lawmakers. “Long term, you can't just continue to sink money into something and not eventually operate in the black.”

A bill filed in the House this year requested $1.3 million to hire special education teachers, therapists and psychologists to address students’ mental health concerns. Another proposal asked for $1.9 million to buy 14 school buses and hire a transportation coordinator and 14 drivers.

Lawmakers ultimately included about $200,000 in transportation funding for Somerset Jefferson in the spending plan. But the money didn’t survive Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ line-item veto.

Diaz, now chair of the state Senate’s education committee, said he still believes simply providing more money to struggling schools won’t fix them.

Jefferson County is an outlier, he said during an interview in his office earlier this year.

“The circumstances in Jefferson are completely different than anything we've seen in the entire state,” Diaz said. “When you start from scratch and change the culture like they [Somerset] did, which is implementing uniforms, changing the building around, … clearly, money is necessary.”

Could more money have saved Jefferson County’s traditional public schools?

In making the argument that culture change, not money, was what has improved Jefferson County’s schools so far, Republican lawmakers have some unlikely allies: For one, a representative of the statewide teachers’ union, which is most often at odds with GOP legislators.

Michael Monroe, a veteran Florida Education Association organizer who works with North Florida school districts, said Somerset implemented changes that Jefferson County teachers had been demanding for years.

“What was the first thing Somerset did? Raise teacher pay…. They went in, instilled discipline, dress codes, upgraded the facilities. Everything we had been asking for and advocating for as educators, they got on day one,” Monroe said.

Now that Somerset is in charge, Jefferson County’s local teachers’ union has no members, and it was recently decertified by the state.

Monroe doesn’t think giving more money to the traditional public school district would have made a difference, because the school board members’ and previous superintendents’ relationships with each other were so dysfunctional.

“I don't think it was the money,” Monroe said. “I think they needed a cultural change.”

Florida's first brick school building
Welaunee Missionary Baptist Church in rural Jefferson County is celebrating 123 years since its founding.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

Pedro McKelvin, the pastor of a black church in Jefferson County, was skeptical of Somerset at first, but the charter school network eventually won him over. He now serves as an advisor to its governing board. He sees the charter school takeover as a matter of “fairness” to mostly black students who had been left behind in the county’s failing public schools while many of their white peers escaped for a better education elsewhere.

McKelvin agreed that more money couldn’t have fixed the traditional school district’s problems, which he blamed on recent superintendents and their top staff members.

“I don't think, with $20 million dollars, it would have changed,” he said.

Somerset Jefferson’s teacher of the year is not so sure, though. Cynthia Barrington has taught in Jefferson County public schools for the entirety of her nearly three-decade career, staying on as the elementary’s star employee after the transition to charter schools.

She said the quality of Jefferson County’s public schools plummeted over time because they were underfunded.

“When I started working in 1990 in this district, we had a whole lot more. … But as the years [went] by, and the money decreased in the public schools, then that's where things started collapsing,” Barrington said.

“So now we're in a charter school where we were able to receive a whole lot more than what we had the previous years,” she said, specifically referring to additional staff members like teachers’ aides.

She said she’d like to see traditional public schools get the same funding the Somerset charter schools have gotten in Jefferson County, and then she could decide whether it was money that helped the situation improve.

“Because we don't have the comparison, it's hard for me to say,” she said, “but I feel like if we have both equal, it can work. It really can work.”

Florida's first brick school building
Somerset Jefferson’s Teacher of the Year Cynthia Barrington said the quality of Jefferson County’s public schools plummeted over time because they were underfunded.
© By Jessica Bakeman/WLRN

A legislative compromise tests the more-money argument

There’s actually an easy way to objectively examine whether more money can make a difference in Florida’s underperforming public schools.

When the Legislature negotiated “schools of hope,” the 2017 law that incentivized charter schools to open in neighborhoods with struggling traditional public schools, Republicans conceded to demands from their Democratic colleagues and school district superintendents that some regular public schools get access to the extra funding, too.

The legislation ultimately allowed for traditional public schools that had received years of Ds or Fs to apply for a chunk of the money. Up to 25 schools could get $2,000 more per student to pay for things like extending the school day, offering tutoring and after-school programs and providing counseling for students and parents.

In 2017-18, the state Department of Education awarded 25 traditional public schools a total of $39.3 million. That first group of schools to receive this funding saw student performance improve twice as much as other struggling schools that did not get the money, according to state Department of Education data. Of the 25 schools that participated, 20 improved to at least a C, with five of those getting an A or B.

The next year, only 14 schools got the awards, for a total of $12.8 million. Eleven of them improved to at least a C.

Florida's first brick school building

Now chair of the Senate Education Committee, Manny Diaz, Jr., sponsored a new law in 2019 eliminating the extra funding for traditional public schools. He said it was just a technical change, moving the money from the “schools of hope” program to another part of the budget.

This year’s state budget provides $45.5 million for extra services at struggling traditional public schools. That’s more money overall than the previous program. Plus, the new plan gets rid of the cap that allowed only 25 schools to receive the awards. And the extra money was wrapped into the overall funding formula for traditional public schools, so it’s possible it’ll be more stable for years to come, and less vulnerable to the whims of lawmakers every year at budget time.

There’s another important difference, though: The new program decreases the amount of money available on a per-student basis. Instead of $2,000 for each kid, it’ll be $500. That’s a lot less to work with when trying to offer costly extra services.

Sen. David Simmons, a central Florida Republican who has championed policies designed to help underperforming schools throughout his career, said he believes $500 per student will be enough to make a dramatic difference for those schools. But if it’s not, lawmakers will consider adding more later, he said.

The fact that extra help for struggling schools is now part of the overall funding formula, perhaps on a permanent basis, is an acknowledgment from the Legislature that money is necessary to overcome the challenges faced by students who live in poverty, Simmons said.

“When a child comes to school hungry, that child isn’t going to be equally able to read and study and learn,” Simmons said. “When a child is sick, that child is disadvantaged in being able to learn. When that child goes home in the afternoon without additional training and assistance, then that child is not going to be able to compete.

“If you want to change the future of Florida,” he said, “change the amount of attention that we give to those who are most at-risk.”