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Charter School Explosion: Are they Fulfilling the Promise?
(Part 1 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

This is the first in a series of seven articles regarding Charter schools and their changing relationship to our community.

The first charter school in Hillsborough County opened in 1997 with Richardson Montessori Academy. It was one of the first five charter schools opened in Florida after legislation was passed authorizing charter schools in the state. Like all early charters, it had a specific mission and was led by a board of dedicated educators and parents. Its founding principal, Mrs. Tommie Brumfield, has continued educating and teaching her kindergarten and elementary students all these years.

What began as a small initiative to give parents more choice as to where their children went to school has increased dramatically in Florida. Over the last twelve years charters have grown more than ten percent each year, but even more in Hillsborough County. For the 2013-2014 school year Hillsborough County has 42 charter schools and 224 traditional public schools. Since 1997, 92 charter schools have been authorized or opened. Consequently, that means that 50 schools have closed or never opened. Currently, 14,000 children attend these 42 charter schools in Hillsborough County, representing 7% of the K-12 enrollment in this, the eighth largest school district in the United States. Of those 14,000 children, 2,799 attend three of the newest and largest facilities managed by a for-profit multi-state corporation called Charter Schools USA.

With 42 charters in Hillsborough County we rank third in Florida in raw numbers. Dade County has 109, Broward has 72, and, trailing Hillsborough, Palm Beach has 37. These four counties represent 45% of all the 578 charters in Florida. Generally charter schools are concentrated in the larger counties in Florida with very few in North Florida.

This growth is mirrored across the county. By 2012, 42 states and the District of Columbia passed laws authorizing charter schools. There are 6000 charter schools in the United States at present enrolling 2 million students, representing four percent of the total K-12 student population. In some districts, particularly big cities, the figure is higher. In 2012 almost 100 districts nationwide had more than 10 percent of their students in charter schools. The outlier is New Orleans where the post-Katrina reconstituted school district has 80 percent of its children in charter schools.

So why does such a small, experimental, subset of our schools incite such debate? One of the most controversial issues during the recent Florida legislative session involved charter schools. Many feel that with the rapid growth in numbers has come a dramatic shift away from the original mission of charter schools as incubators of public school innovation. Albert Shanker, President of the American Federation of Teachers, and University of Massachusetts professor, Ray Budde, are credited with developing the notion of a school that would be granted a “charter” in order to address the needs of a specific group of students. Like traditional public schools, the charter school would receive public funding but would be governed by an independent, non-profit board (most often made up of parents and teachers) and be free to establish the policies and procedures that would enable the school to most effectively serve those students. They could hire their own teachers and staff, control their own finances, and create their own academic programs. If important lessons were learned through these “incubators,” they could be integrated into the authorizing public school system to benefit all students. Is this still the case?

One of the questions being asked of charter schools today is whether parents can be confident that their children are being taught by qualified professionals. Although certified teachers are a requirement of all public schools in Florida, there is evidence that some in charters are teaching “out of field.” On average charter school teachers are paid less than traditional public school teachers’ starting pay. Research has revealed salaries averaging $35,000 a year. Teacher turnover, leaving mid-year or after just one year, is much higher in charters. Most charter teachers have no benefits, insurance or tenure. Therefore charter teachers have no job security. There is also a question of the quality of school leadership since, unlike in the traditional public schools, charter principals have no required degrees or certifications. In Hillsborough County we have a person who was a data entry clerk in a traditional school, but is now the principal of a charter school. In other counties for-profit charter schools are being administered by members of the Florida legislature or their family members and earning large, six-figure salaries.

Another question being asked is whether charter schools are delivering on their promise of providing children with a better education. FCAT testing, kindergarten readiness tests, as well as end-of-course-exams are required in most charter schools, just as in the traditional public schools. Schools with very small enrollments (10 of the 42 Hillsborough charters have fewer than 100 students) or with large numbers of exceptional students are exempt, so comparisons are difficult, but most studies show that charter schools are performing no better than comparable traditional public schools.

This is certainly not to argue that there are not charter schools in Hillsborough County that are struggling (and succeeding) to serve the needs of a unique group of students. A few schools specialize in exceptional student education or autism. A virtual (computer-based instruction) high school targets drop-outs who left the traditional schools. One charter school encourages all things environmental, utilizing large acreage with natural Florida’s flora and fauna on site for exploration.

But the issue is how to make sure that these exceptional charter schools are not being overshadowed by those that are draining public resources and cheating children and parents due to ineffectiveness or, sadly, more concern for private profit than public education. Oversight of the growing number of charter schools is an extremely difficult task and is made even more difficult as public education dollars shrink. Each school district has a charter school liaison and in Hillsborough County it is Jenna Hodgens, a former teacher of exceptional education. She is responsible for everything from charter applications to compliance to audits. Much of the controversy in Tallahassee during the recent session was dealing with the demand, on the part of the for-profit charter industry, to reduce local oversight.

Since the first public school charters were established in the state in 1997, Florida has loosened its oversight so that the state’s charter school laws are considered to be among the nation’s most charter school friendly. As a result they are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing the rules. Since the entry of large for-profit charter owners and management companies, overseers must now delve into the complex issues of real estate development. Finding a location is one of the biggest concerns for a new charter school, both for the expense and space requirements. Most rent their facilities from churches or shopping centers or lease new buildings built by real-estate developer, but the arrangements vary greatly and in some cases the privately operated charter chain pays itself such large rents and management fees that the funds available for instruction are squeezed. Properties used by charter schools are exempt from property taxes, further depleting the available funds for the traditional public schools. Future stories will address the multi-layered morass of charter school finance.

Some charters are really good for children and some are in the business of making money, lots of money. It is time to refocus public policy on providing excellent public schools for all children.

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