Charter Schools 101
The next year, the school board shot down an unrelated application for a charter high school, the county's first, made by two former Palm Beach County public school teachers. The St. Lucie board found their application for an Advanced Placement curriculum-oriented high school deficient on 17 of 20 evaluation items, says founder Erika Rains.
Rains' team appealed to the state Charter Review Commission, where she prevailed on all but one item. State law, however, mandates that even one deficient item kills the appeal. That item: The application had deliberately not identified a specific reading curriculum for non-proficient readers — though it mentioned likely products — because the operators wanted to allow the school's teachers to choose the curriculum.
Rains took her case to the state Board of Education in February, made an impassioned plea — the video of the meeting where she spoke is popular in charter circles — and selected a particular reading curriculum.
The district argued that an application can't be amended, but the state board backed Rains and ordered the district to let her go forward. She plans to open her school in August. "Erika is now a hero," says the charter consortium's Kitts.
St. Lucie Schools Superintendent Michael Lannon says both applications failed on their merits. He has also questioned whether more charters are needed given the county's slower growth. He says area schools near the research park are A and B schools, including a relatively new K-8 just a mile from the park. "I put one of my very best elementary principals there to get it started and running. It's doing very well," Lannon says.
Parents have complete choice about which traditional high school in the county their children attend and have choice within zones for K-8, he adds. The county also has the existing Renaissance charter school, another charter and an FAU-St. Lucie lab school in Tradition, the real estate development where the research park is located.
"The rules in Florida for charter schools are exceptionally favorable. They're exceptionally favorable for the operator," Lannon says. "Our board, we follow the rules whether we like them or not."
With President Barack Obama, Gov. Rick Scott and a Republican Legislature all favoring having charter options, more are in Florida's future. The state Legislature in May passed pro-charter measures that will allow easier approval for expansions by high-performing school operators, longer contracts for charters and charter online education.
Meanwhile, the state is combining $20 million in federal Race to the Top funding with $10 million from the Colorado-based philanthropic Charter School Growth Fund to spur charters to open in neighborhoods with the persistently lowest achieving traditional schools and to take over and turn around failing traditional schools. Another $10 million will go to existing charters to buy goods and services to improve performance.
Kooi says that in counties with a large number of charters, friction is decreasing as districts have come to recognize their value and have figured out how to balance the need for flexibility with responsible monitoring.
"There's obviously a natural tension between charter schools and districts because they are in competition to some degree," he says. He also says charters have spurred districts to offer students options such as magnet and IB programs.
"I think most of them would admit it's led them to develop more choice in the district," Kooi says. "That's what we want."
Hage and Haiko say they may go back to St. Lucie with a new application. "I'd love to," Haiko says. "Just to partner with someone like Torrey Pines would be great, and I think it would be great for the kids."