Selected readings on US charter schools
Florida, with 627 charter schools serving more than 203,000 students, already has one of the fastest-growing charter movements in the nation. And a new state law may further tip the balance of power toward charter operators.
Legislators vowed changes to charter laws after the principal of NorthStar High School, an Orange County charter, walked away from the failing school with more than $500,000 in taxpayer money last year.
The resulting law tightened accountability for charter schools that are closing. But it also took away school districts’ discretion to negotiate with each charter school over academics, finances and other critical areas by mandating a single, statewide model contract.
“It’s just a charade,” Orange County School Board Chairman Bill Sublette said of the charter-approval process.
“The model contract took away our ability to negotiate even the minimum performance standards” beyond state law, Sublette said. For example, some Orange contracts had required schools to close if they either couldn’t reach a C grade or got two F grades in four years.
Orange County began asking charters to agree to those standards after Imani Elementary Charter Academy failed in 2011, hobbled by financial mismanagement and academic struggles that left students without computers or adequate books.
Even with the new changes in state law, districts in Central Florida are proceeding as usual: studying charter applications, interviewing applicants and holding School Board hearings. Their boards will be considering a wide variety of potential new schools among the 15 remaining applicants in Orange, 10 in Osceola, six in Seminole, three in Volusia and one in Lake.
A company called Charter Schools USA is applying to open three new schools in Orange, two in Osceola and one in Seminole.
The chain has two schools in Orange County. The first, Renaissance Charter School at Chickasaw Trail, earned its first grade this spring: an “F.” Before that grade, the company was considered one of the state’s “high performing” charter systems because its schools were all graded “C” or above. That label made it easier for the charter company to open new schools.
Charter Schools USA stands behind the Chickasaw Trail school.
“As we all know, an FCAT score does not necessarily define a school, but serves as an important tool for identifying areas of improvement,” said Colleen Reynolds, spokeswoman for Fort Lauderdale-based company. “Parents are happy with the progress their children have made on an individual basis, which is evidenced by the high number of parents who have recommitted.”
This August, the company opened Renaissance Charter School at Hunter’s Creek, which was rejected by the Orange County School Board in 2011 but overturned on appeal. That school was turned down in part because the Chickasaw Trail school opened a year late and did not yet have a track record. The board also objected to the school’s budget assumptions and fiscal oversight.
“We have shown time and again we will deny a charter application that doesn’t have a good performance record,” Sublette said. “The question is if it is a futile gesture.”
State law gives charter schools the right to appeal denials to state panels, which have typically favored the privately run public schools.
Some of this year’s other applicants have better track records in Central Florida.
Orange County’s successful, A-rated Orlando Science Schools are looking to expand into Osceola. The principal of Nap Ford Community School in Parramore and state Rep. Randolph Bracy are backing applications for new schools in Orange County. Seminole County’s A-rated Galileo School for Gifted Learning is applying to open a middle school. And Acclaim Academy, which operates a school in Osceola, wants to open a military academy in Volusia.
But it’s not clear what the contracts for the ones that succeed will look like because the state’s model contract is still being written.
Charter operators have suggested changes that would limit enrollment caps, shorten the list of reasons why districts could close charters, and eliminate a requirement that charters perform equally well or better than other schools in their district.
Meanwhile, district officials want contract language that would enforce requirements that schools provide them with employee rosters; require struggling charters to create and follow school-improvement plans; and ban charter schools from rejecting many students with disabilities.
The state Department of Education plans to get a version to the governor and legislative leaders by Nov. 1.
“We’re still waiting,” Vazquez Esposito said.
Source: Orlando Sentinel – by Lauren Roth