Charter schools are important because they create healthy competition for traditional public schools. Healthy in that charters are public schools, which means no voucher-type issues involving public money going to religious schools. Healthy in that charter school students must take the FCAT, so it's possible to compare their effectiveness on a fair basis with that of traditional public schools. Healthy in that by innovating and doing more with less they can help hidebound school districts focus on educating children rather than administering a set of buildings and employees.
There are inconsistencies among charter schools from district to district in terms of academic performance, but most charter schools are doing well. Overall, 70% score "A" and "B" ratings from the state, and 90% are "A," "B" or "C" schools. Even lowerperforming charters tend to get favorable reviews from parents.
In the past five years, according to a state review panel, the percentage of children testing proficient in reading at Florida's charter schools grew at a faster pace than that of students in non-charter public schools. That statement encompasses African-American and Hispanic children as well. In Broward County, the percentage of African-American charter school students testing proficient in reading has increased at a faster rate than at the non-charter schools. In Miami-Dade County, according to the report, "a 51% greater number of Hispanic charter school students tested proficient in reading this past year than at non-charter public schools." In Broward, there's no reading achievement gap between Hispanic charter school students and non-charter white students statewide.
Charters are also valuable because their performance puts the lie to the perennial claim that all schools need is more money. Charters operate at a financial disadvantage and, in fact, subsidize their local district operations since they get no local property tax money. They receive only the state's per-student allocation, and then the local school district skims 5% off that total for "administrative expenses." The state created a small pool of money to help charters with the expense of building and maintaining schools but hasn't increased the size of that pool at all proportionately with the growth in the number of charters.
That issue is particularly acute in Pembroke Pines, which operates a charter school system that has experienced deficits -- because the state pool hasn't grown and the Broward district won't share its property tax revenue. Parents in the Pembroke Pines system may well ask why their taxes subsidize the education of other Broward County children rather than follow their own kids, who get less money simply because they attend a different kind of public school than their peers elsewhere in the county.
Talk to someone about charters, and the question inevitably arises: What about the ones that fail? The answer is that between 1998 and 2005, 62 charter schools failed. And thank goodness the bad ones can fail. A more interesting question is how many traditional public schools -- operating with more money and less accountability -- would have to close if subjected to the same financial and academic scrutiny as charters. I am unaware of a single traditional public school that has been closed for failing to teach its children to read at grade level. Meanwhile, Hillsborough County spent $15 million recently in taxpayer money expanding schools where enrollments were shrinking. There was no hue and cry to shut down any of those schools or fire administrators -- as would certainly have been the case if a charter school had been found to have mismanaged even a fraction of that sum.
The relationship between charters and local districts need not be adversarial, however, and seems to be evolving in positive ways in some places.
Consider one charter in the Temple Terrace area of Tampa. Cametra Edwards, trained as a school psychologist with a doctorate from USF, was among a group that started the Village of Excellence Academy. The school, now in its seventh year, was founded to serve children in grades 1 through 4 with serious behavior problems. The school started with 54 children, now has 120 and could have at least 10 more if it had more space, says Edwards.
Her students -- she's been the school's principal since its founding -- include equal numbers of boys and girls. Nearly 95% are African-American. Over time, the school has also accepted children in academic difficulty and a few whose parents just thought they'd do better in smaller classes at a smaller school. Many weren't promoted at their former schools because they weren't progressing academically. The kids come from all over the county; their parents, not the district, provide transportation.
In other words, a tough population to serve, and one that the district hadn't been serving. When Edwards' group started the school, the Hillsborough County district had no programs for children in that age range with behavior problems.
In recent years, Edwards' school took heat from the district, which threatened to pull her charter. The reason? Her school's FCAT passage rates weren't good compared to the district's. But then Edwards compared apples to apples: Most of her students at the time were African-American boys. When she compared how her African-American boys were progressing through the FCAT levels compared to the African-American boys in the district at large, she found that "we did better than the district was doing with the same population." Edwards' school kept its charter.
Edwards, by the way, has a waiting list of children for her school and has no trouble retaining teachers (most have been there since the school was founded) or finding new ones. When she posted a rare vacancy recently, she got 40 responses from teachers all over the country -- eager to teach minority children with behavior problems.
Edwards says a recent change in administration at the county district has produced a much better working relationship between the charters and the district. "They have really decided we will be around. We're no longer in the experimental stages, and they now see us as a partner at the table to assist them, rather than as a competitor. The atmosphere has changed, and we're actually being heard," she says. "There's competition in a way, but it's in a healthy, positive way rather than a cutthroat way."