Learning Curve: Charter School Friction in Florida
Charter Schools 101
The St. Lucie school district rejected charter founder Erika Rains' application. She appealed to the state Board of Education, which backed her and ordered the county to green-light her school plans. [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]
William J. "Bill" Montford III, CEO of the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and a state senator, says all districts "are rightfully cautious in what they do. I'm sure there is legitimacy in the claim they're treated different from district to district. That's not necessarily bad."
He echoes Lankford that Florida districts range widely in size. He expects a charter operator would get different treatment from Miami-Dade than from a smaller district. He says local control is important to Florida. "My hope is that all charter school companies and anybody who approaches a school district gets a fair and open hearing. I don't believe there is any school district in Florida that sets out to sabotage a charter school effort."
The state has tried to ensure uniformity in treatment by introducing a model charter application along with a model for districts to use in evaluating applications and a model contract between districts and charters. "I would prefer they all would be open to good quality charter schools and to be very vigilant about approving bad ones," says Michael Kooi, executive director of the state Department of Education's Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.
"I think they've been pretty good. There are some that don't want any, regardless of whether they're good or bad," he says.
Hage says the school proposed at the Tradition Center for Innovation would have made it easier for research park sites such as Torrey Pines and VGTI, research outfits recruited to Florida with more than $200 million in state and local incentives, to lure scientists by alleviating concerns about the quality of education their kids would receive.
In return for donated land for the school site and a $400 per student supplement for each child of a park employee, the school would have given preference in admission to the children of park employees as long as the school met state diversity requirements. If too few children of employees enrolled, the school would have opened admission to outside students. Like all charters, it would have been a public school funded by taxpayers.
"There was a lot of demand in the Tradition community and specifically from Torrey Pines," says Hage, whose for-profit company would have managed the school. (Efforts to obtain comment from Torrey Pines CEO Richard Houghten were unsuccessful, but he was quoted in a newspaper in 2009 saying a scientist he was trying to recruit had asked whether there would be a charter school.)
The St. Lucie district faulted the charter application on several grounds, but the ultimate sticking point was that the center would provide only the land for the school and the per-student supplement. The district said the law required the workplace to also supply the school building. All that would have come to more than $10 million, Hage says.
The district, Hage says, chose a restrictive reading of the state law on workplace contributions to charter funding, unlike the view the Miami-Dade district took with the Ryder school. Ryder provided the land but not the building. Ultimately, the St. Lucie project "fell apart," Hage says.