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Charter School Explosion: Are they Fulfilling the Promise?
(Part 2 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

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

The Education Committee of the Hillsborough County League of Women Voters has participated in a statewide study of Florida’s charter schools led by the Alachua County League. Twenty–one local leagues conducted studies representing 27 counties from Dade to Escambia. The League of Women Voters has been a strong proponent of quality public school education throughout our 70-year history in Florida. The League supports the Florida Constitution, which defines a uniform, high-quality public school system as a paramount duty of the state.

In the first article last week we focused on the history and back story of the rationale and creation of the “charter school” concept. In this article the focus is the statistical and demographic information impacting charter schools in Hillsborough County, the State of Florida and throughout the United States.

Education experts agree that the most critical component in any school classroom is an effective and engaging teacher who captures the attention and imagination of the children he or she is responsible for instructing, whatever the subject or grade level. In a recent interview with Bill Moyers on “Moyers & Company” on PBS Diane Ravitch, author of the critically acclaimed book “Reign of Error,” decreed that within the last few years the “average teacher in America had 15 years teaching experience but now it is one year” due to teachers leaving education in droves, retiring early (as I did from Jefferson High School) or seeking less stressful employment elsewhere. Generally charter school turnover is high, with salaries lower than the already low salaries in Florida for public school teachers. The starting salary for Hillsborough County traditional teachers is $37,596.47. Charter school teachers typically receive a single-year contract, no health coverage or retirement benefits.

The total enrollment of all children in public school grades kindergarten through 12th in Florida is 2,720,074 for the 2013-2014 school year. The charter school student number is 203,240 accounting for 7.46 percent of all children being educated by our taxpayer dollars. Florida’s education budget is approximately $13 billion dollars, with $1 billion directed to charter schools – not counting the millions in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funds. PECO funding and its political connections will be in a future story.

Charter schools are significantly smaller in terms of student enrollment, building size, amenities and playground capacity. The average enrollment for each of Hillsborough County’s 224 traditional schools is 844. Of course, elementary schools are smaller and high schools can have as many as 2,500 children. By contrast the average for the 42 Hillsborough charters is 329 children. This number is deceiving since a handful of very large for-profit charters enroll much higher numbers (e.g., Winthrop K-8 has 1,254 children) while most are much smaller (the smallest being Focus Academy 9-12 with 30 students). Most charters are K-8 grade level; very few are high schools here, perhaps because high schools are much more costly to build. Charter schools can be operated without cafeterias, lunchrooms (food must be delivered by a vendor) and small or non-existent libraries.

An oft-quoted statistic relative to student test scores and performance is the percentage of students receiving “free/reduced meals.” This is a widely accepted indicator of schoolchildren living in poverty and is determined by family size and total income related to national poverty level. Fifty-nine percent, nearly 6 of every 10 children, in traditional public schools in Florida are on free/reduced meals. However the rate for charters in the state is only 51 percent. The underrepresentation of poor children in Hillsborough charter schools is even more pronounced with a free and reduced lunch rate of only 42 percent, although the county rate is, like that for the state, nearly 60 percent. Historically if a school had a majority of its students receiving this benefit, the school was “Title 1,” qualifying for extra federal funding for tutors and other personnel to support student learning and, hopefully, testing gains. Jefferson, Leto and Middleton High Schools have qualified for this funding for years. In fact, 60 percent of the traditional public schools in Hillsborough are categorized as Title 1. Not surprisingly only 33 percent of the 42 charters are so classified. It is sad that children living in poverty, who could benefit from the smaller size and special support and services that a charter school might provide, are underrepresented in charter schools.

Another important qualifier when comparing student test scores is the exceptional student enrollment or “ESE.” ESE includes all kinds of exceptionalities: emotional and physical challenges, autism, the “alphabet soup” of ADD, ADHD, SLD, as well as gifted categories. Hillsborough County has nine public exceptional centers for this population as well as several strategically located schools built on one level, without stairs, to accommodate various exceptionalities. A small minority of Hillsborough charter schools embrace these children as part of their mission (Pepin Academies, Florida Autism Charter School and Focus Academy). But it has been shown nationally that ESE students are “cherry-picked off and out” of charters because they require specially trained teachers and aides and are, thus, expensive to educate. A 2012 Government Accounting Office report showed that while 11 percent of students have such disabilities, charter schools enroll only 8 percent nationally. This underrepresentation of ESE students is repeated in Florida where 13.25 percent of the students in traditional publics are ESE but only 9 percent of charter school students are ESE. The Hillsborough traditional public schools have a 13 percent ESE enrollment, but, if you eliminate the three charter schools named above that serve almost exclusively ESE students, the Hillsborough charter schools ESE enrollment drops to 8.6 percent. Once again a group that could benefit from the small size and focus of a charter school are not being served in numbers equal to the traditional public schools.

Following a documented national trend, our study reveals a return to segregation by race and ethnicity, although now by “parental choice” and charter school recruitment. While the overall enrollment figures for Hillsborough charters show a minority representation of 59 percent, comparing well with the traditional public schools, minority students are more likely to be segregated into charter schools with very high minority populations. Of the 42 Hillsborough charters, seven have minority populations of more than 90 percent and 10 (nearly one quarter of the total) have minority populations of more than 80 percent. Even within the minority population there is segregation.

Too often charter schools that succeed do so because they recruit better students from the beginning and screen out unsuccessful children who perform poorly on school readiness and FCAT tests. Our next article will show that, in spite of this “skimming,” the results are not impressive.

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