Learning Curve: Charter School Friction in Florida
Charter Schools 101
St. Lucie County rejected a proposal by Renaissance Charter School to start a school at the Tradition Center for Innovation. Jonathan Hage, whose company would have managed the school, says a charter school would have made it easier to recruit scientists to the research park. The county says the application was deficient and that traditional schools in the area are graded A and B. [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]
|Charter Schools 101
» Charter schools are public schools, funded by taxpayers, sponsored by a local school district or university to expand education options for children. Often, they are started by groups of educators or parents to serve a targeted population, such as inner-city kids struggling in traditional public schools, or they focus on foreign languages or the arts, sciences and technology.
» Schools must be non-profit, but some bring in a for-profit management company to provide services ranging from the limited — payroll processing — to a turnkey operation with teachers and staff.
» Local district staff vet charter school applications and recommend whether the local board should approve or deny them. Applicants can appeal a denial to the state Board of Education. Charter schools must participate in FCAT testing and No Child Left Behind accountability measures and be staffed with state-certified teachers. However, charter schools operate free of certain rules that apply to other public schools — they can create their own curricula, for example. Florida law gives districts the right to close a charter school if it violates its contract. As of last month, 182 Florida charter schools have closed or have been closed, including some that have merged with others or that never opened.
» While they are publicly funded, charters do not receive the same per-student funding as traditional public schools. School districts take a 5% slice from student funding for the first 250 students to cover the cost of administrative service. Rarely does a district — Sarasota is a notable exception — share with charters local property tax revenue intended to meet school construction and capital equipment needs.
In 2009, Fort Lauderdale-based Renaissance Charter School applied to the St. Lucie County school district to open a Renaissance charter school at a research park called the Tradition Center for Innovation in Port St. Lucie. The school was to be staffed and run by Fort Lauderdale management company Charter Schools USA. It was intended as a charter-in-the-workplace for children of employees at the park, which houses the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, two of Florida's new life-science research campuses.
Renaissance chief education officer Ken Haiko and Charter Schools USA president and CEO Jonathan Hage say the application for the 860-student, K-8 school mirrored a successful application they had filed for another Renaissance school in St. Lucie. Indeed, Hage says it mirrored successful applications for all 19 schools he was running then, and also the 1999 application to open a school at logistics company Ryder Systems in Miami-Dade, the nation's first charter-in-the-workplace.
The St. Lucie district, however, opposed the application, and a year later nixed an application by two teachers to start a charter high school.
"They find ways to deny you. It's that simple," says Hage, who likens applying for a charter to "going into McDonald's to get a Burger King approved." The two cases have become a cause celebre among advocates for legislative action to force local districts to be more receptive to charter formation.
Florida already is an accommodating place for charters, coming in second nationally in the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools' rankings based on the strength of its charter school law. Since Jeb Bush helped found the first charter in Florida in Liberty City in Miami in 1996, the number of charters in Florida has grown to 456 schools, placing Florida third in the nation. Charter schools in Florida educated more than 155,000 students this year — nearly 6% of the state's public school students. If growth trends hold, the number of charters will pass 500 in the upcoming school year.