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Charter School Explosion: Are they Fulfilling the Promise?
(Part 3 of 7)

By Patricia W. Hall

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

Charter schools were created as complements to the public schools, where educators and parents could apply innovative teaching strategies for children not well-served by the traditional publics. They would receive public funds and be freed of many of the district’s regulations, but they would be held accountable for the results. The promise of charter schools was that they would be “effective” (children would learn more) and “efficient” (they could target resources on student learning).

A study done each year since 2009 by Stanford University has shown that there is little difference between the academic performance of students attending charter schools and those attending traditional public schools. Both systems have students who do well and those who do not. In Florida we measure student achievement through the FCAT and assign school grades according to their student scores. The League of Women Voters of Florida’s Statewide Study on Charter Schools, under the guidance of Dr. Sue Legg, retired University of Florida professor, found that in 2011 only 1 percent of the public schools received F grades, while 6 percent of charters failed. Put more pointedly half of the failing schools in Florida that year were charter schools. Our own investigation of Hillsborough schools reveals a similar trend in 2012, with 2 percent of public schools receiving F’s, while 4 percent of Hillsborough’s charters did. At the other end of the spectrum, 41 percent of Hillsborough public schools received A’s, while 38 percent of Hillsborough charters received the top grade. If charter schools were fulfilling their promise of more effectively educating children, wouldn’t they have fewer F’s and more A’s?

It is particularly surprising that overall charter performance is not better, given the evidence presented in our second article (La Gaceta, 6/6/14) that charter schools tend to recruit, admit and retain fewer students who do poorly on standardized tests. To be fair, a handful of Hillsborough charters focus on challenging student groups (special education, autism, dropouts, etc.), but most have lower rates of special needs or “free/reduced meals” enrollment than the traditional publics. Since poverty correlates highly with school performance, one would expect that the lower level of free/reduced meal students in charters would result in higher school grades. An analysis of the Hillsborough schools earning A’s found a median free/reduced meal rate of 44 percent for the traditional public schools, while the charters receiving A’s had a rate of only 30 percent. Both are well below the district-wide rate of 60 percent, but the charter rate is only half the district rate. Also, as one would additionally expect, all of the Hillsborough schools receiving F’s, whether traditional publics or charters, had free/reduced meal rates well above the district rate. Shouldn’t we expect that students living in poverty would benefit from the innovative instruction, special services and smaller classes that charter schools promise?

In addition to increased effectiveness, charter schools were supposed to run more efficiently, costing taxpayers less. Nationally and in Tallahassee, a debate has been raging about whether charter schools deserve more tax-payer funding. The charter lobby points out that they receive less public funding, particularly facilities funding. Others argue that the traditional publics are serving more of the students that are costly to educate and provide facilities that many charter schools do not such as lunchrooms, libraries, athletic facilities and performance venues. While this battle swirls, we have looked at the expenditures of the Hillsborough schools by what we feel is the single most important measure: How much is being spent on “instruction.” While it varies, it is generally agreed that the figure for the Hillsborough public schools is well above 75 percent. Our analysis of the 30 Hillsborough charters, for which audit data was available in 2011, shows that only one spent more than 60 percent (an A school) and one spent only 26 percent (an F school), with most spending 40 to 50 percent. This is perhaps the most telling statistic as we ask why charter schools in Hillsborough County are not delivering on their promise of producing better achievement results.

Charter schools are not only failing to deliver on their promises to educate our children more effectively and efficiently, but a large number are failing altogether and shutting down. These closures have a variety of causes, financial (41.7 percent), mismanagement (24 percent) or academic (18 percent), but, regardless, we should not be in the business of creating large numbers of failing schools. Florida has a charter closure rate of 20 percent, one of the highest in the country. Hillsborough County currently has 42 charter schools, but since it began issuing charters in 1997 92 have been authorized, indicating an equally unstable charter school environment.

What happens to the children enrolled in a charter when it fails to deliver its promise or closes altogether? Most return to the traditional public schools that they left. This “yo-yoing” of students creates instability in the lives of the children, as well as the public school system as a whole. A July 26, 2013, article in the Tampa Bay Times by Marlene Sokol showed the breakdown of traditional public schools losing enrollment to charter schools. Many of the schools that lost students were performing well but parents were taken by the promise of a “private education in public school.” According to Sokol, these charter transfers cost the district $68 million, causing some of the previously high-achieving public schools to perform less well. Then, if the receiving charter fails, the yo-yoing children put an added strain on the already struggling public school. It is a lose-lose.

But all is not bad news in the world of charter schools in Hillsborough County. There are some wonderful examples of charter schools that have fulfilled their promise and can be models for improved public school education. We will highlight them in our next article.

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