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Learning Curve: Charter School Friction in Florida

Jonathan Hage
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.

Tom Kitts
Tim Kitts runs charter schools in Bay County and chairs the advocacy committee of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. "The districts really have the power to drag you out forever," he says. [Photo: Terry Barner/The News Herald]

Sizing Up Florida's Charters

» Count: 456 charter schools in 43 districts

» Growth: From 92,214 in 2005-06, the number of charter school students grew to 118,169 in 2008-09, then to 137,196 in 2009-10. In 2010-11, there were approximately 155,000 students at charter schools in Florida.

» Most students at charter schools in Florida are minorities:

White — 39%
Hispanic — 33%
African-American — 22%

» Boy/girl ratio: 50/50

» Eligible for free or reduced lunch: 42%

Some district superintendents and school boards are more receptive to charters than others, however. "They can just make your life miserable," says Tim Kitts, advocacy committee chair of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools and chief education officer for the Bay Haven Charter Academy in Bay County.

"If I'm a district and I want to stop you, I can write nebulous things like 'the curriculum's incomplete. We don't have to tell you what's incomplete. Make it complete.' The districts really have the power to drag you out forever," he says.

Charters' paramount complaint involves funding. Charter schools across Florida typically receive at least 5% less per student, up to 250 students, than district public schools get. Districts keep the money to cover administrative costs in dealing with charters, and also to stimulate charters to meet their mandate to operate more efficiently.

That's bad enough, say the charters, but almost no districts share any of the local property tax money that goes to fund capital improvements ["Sarasota's High Charter Marks"]. Charter operators see those funds as public education money that should be shared proportionally with charter schools to benefit all students.

Charter operators have other complaints. Some local districts, they say, reject applications as insufficient and then refuse amendments. Charters are often left out of the loop on important communications, they say. Some local districts even deny applications for new schools from proven operators while approving substandard applicants — so-called "approved-to-fail" schools.

Much is in the eye of the beholder. Talk to two charter operators about the best and worst counties in the state to do business and they're likely to disagree.

Districts, meanwhile, ask how charters can complain of district obstruction at the same time charters are growing by the score. Candace Lankford, a Volusia school board member and president of the Florida School Boards Association, says that some districts lack the personnel resources to thoroughly review a charter application, which perhaps causes complaints of uneven treatment from county to county.

Since 2005, 67 charter operators have appealed district rulings denying their applications. The state body that hears appeals granted 16 and denied 23 cases. Most of the rest were withdrawn; one was remanded to the district, and three were ruled untimely.

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Erika Rains
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.)

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Top Charter Counties in Florida
County Charter Schools
Miami-Dade 91
Broward 68
Palm Beach 32
Hillsborough 30
Orange 28
Polk 23
Lee 21
Alachua 13
Duval 13
Pinellas 13

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.

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."