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PolitiFact Florida Wades Through Algae Claims; Whether Charter School Teachers Have To Be Certified

Congressman Ron DeSantis, left, and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam at their Aug. 8 debate

During a recent debate, Congressman Ron DeSantis and Florida Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam took opposite sides of the claim that leaky septic tanks are contributing to the algae polluting Lake Okeechobee and the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. 

We check into the real reason for the outbreak and a claim by candidate for governor Gwen Graham that teachers in charter schools don’t have to be certified.

There's another kind of "green" being talked about during this election campaign season. This is the kind that fouls lakes and rivers - and tourism. Algae blooms decimating Lake Okeechobee and both the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines has become campaign fodder.

The causes of the bloom and what to do about it have become issues in Florida’s political races, including the Republican primary for governor.

During an Aug. 8 debate, the moderator asked U.S. Rep. Ron DeSantis and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam if they would increase funding for the state to inspect septic tanks to help solve the algae bloom.

"I don’t think the septic tanks are the core issue," DeSantis replied. "I know there has been stuff put out on that I think that was funded by industry sources. To me the problem is is that you are putting all the phosphorus into Lake Okeechobee. When the lake rises, they have the Army Corps will discharge and they are discharging it into the estuaries, the St. Lucie and the  Caloosahatchee. That is what’s causing the problem."

Putnam switched the topic to septic tanks and residential growth.

"Why is it that you are denying the fact that 21 million people on a peninsula that used to be 60 percent wetlands is not playing a role in addition to industry and in addition to agriculture?" Putnam said. "The septic tank research came out of the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University, and it said the majority of the nutrient loading going into the Indian River Lagoon was coming from failed septic systems."

DeSantis rebutted by stating Putnam doesn’t want to offend the sugar industry, which is financially backing Putnam. The industry owns farm land south of the lake.

Here's what PolitiFact Florida discovered:

"There is no single factor that by itself explains what is going on," said University of Florida professor Ed Phlips, an expert on algae. "Multiple factors are all contributing together to what happens to Lake Okeechobee."
Over decades, the farms and residential developments around Lake Okeechobee used fertilizer that leaked into the water, causing the nutrient pollution that fed the algae blooms. When Lake Okeechobee is discharged, its algae bloom spreads into connecting waters. Climate change makes the problem worse, because harmful algae grows faster in warmer weather. An increase in rain can also wash more fertilizer and other pollution into waterways.
While one scientist has done research showing septic tanks play a major role, other scientists said it is harder to pinpoint to what extent leaky septic tanks have factored into the pollution.
University of Miami professor Larry Brand said the timing of blooms in the summer of 2016 strongly suggested a connection to Lake Okeechobee, not septic tanks.
"Those blooms occurred precisely when large amounts of algae and nutrient rich water were released from Lake O into the St. Lucie, and the algal species in Stuart were the same as Lake O," he said.
John Capece, is on the board of directors for the Calusa Waterkeeper, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Caloosahatchee River, and a former water quality scientist at the University of Florida. He said arguing over whether septic tanks or agricultural runoff is the dominant cause is pointless.
"Ag runoff is already more than sufficient to cause this problem," he said. "And if they are not already, septic tanks will eventually be the primary cause of blooms in some locations. Seriously, does it really matter if the marginally greater cause is what people eat or..." (at this point Capece went on to describe certain bodily functions).
During the debate, Putnam mentioned research by the University of Florida. But Wendy Graham, director of the Water Institute and an author on the paper about moving water from Lake Okeechobee, said that the authors didn’t investigate whether urban or agricultural sources were responsible for the nutrients.

In our next ruling, one of the Democratic candidates for governor, former Congresswoman Gwen Graham recently said that some charter schools in Florida provided a "subpar education." She said, "The teachers in (charter) schools don't even have to be certified."

Here's PolitiFact Florida's ruling:

According to the Florida Department of Education, most charter school teachers are required to be certified.
The certification process is mandated by the Florida K-20 Education Code, a subset of the 2018 Florida Statutes. Statute 1002.33 reads, "Teachers employed by or under contract to a charter school shall be certified as required by chapter 1012." Statute 1012, the same rule that governs traditional public schools, requires teachers to "hold the certificate required by law and by rules of the State Board of Education" in order to teach.
However, certification is not mandatory for a subset of Florida charter schools, called the "schools of hope." These charter schools operate within underserved districts that have "persistently low-performing schools." The legislature hoped to attract successful charter organizations from other states by offering financial incentives and increased administrative freedom. Gov. Rick Scott signed the controversial bill, known as HB 7069, into law in July 2017.
Graham did not specify in her interview with the editorial boards that she was referring to these schools. Her campaign clarified when we contacted them, and linked us to the bill.
According to HB 7069, "schools of hope" can hire administrators and "instructional personnel" who do not meet the requirements for public school teachers, so long as they have not been convicted of any felonies or other serious crimes. Instructional personnel include lead classroom teachers. As of August 2018, no "schools of hope" have opened in Florida. Four companies have been approved as "hope operators," but none intend to begin operation for this school year.
It is misleading to say that teachers in charter schools don't have to be certified when the vast majority of them do.
We rate this claim Mostly False.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.