NEWS: Charter School Movement Exploding in Florida

From The Miami Herald:

Mornings at the Charter School of Excellence are an all-out attack on reading.

At 9 a.m. sharp, the children divide into small groups, spread out across the Fort Lauderdale campus and spend 90 minutes studying phonics, vocabulary and reading comprehension. To keep the student-to-teacher ratio low, every instructor in the building — the P.E. coach, fine arts teacher and teachers-in-training included — is assigned to a group.

The strategy is working. Despite a 71 percent poverty rate among students, the school has received eight consecutive A grades from the state.

This is exactly what Florida’s charter school pioneers envisioned when they launched the movement in the early 1990s. They argued that public schools set free from school board politics and big district bureaucracies could tailor their programs to pupils’ needs, helping students to achieve.

Since then, the movement has exploded. More than 58,000 children now attend charter schools in Miami-Dade and Broward — nearly a tenth of all public school students in South Florida.

That number is almost certain to balloon. State legislation passed last week will make it easier for new charter schools to open and existing ones to expand. Another new law will allow for the creation of virtual charter schools, which will enable students and teachers to connect over the Internet without brick-and-mortar buildings.

Some of the region’s charters are among the best schools in the country: Mater Academy Charter Middle/High in Hialeah Gardens, the Archimedean Schools in West Kendall and the Charter Schools of Excellence in Broward, to name a few. But others are places where students are taught in tool sheds, textbooks are in short supply and public dollars are used to pad principals’ pockets.

The big picture? The bulk of South Florida charter schools perform no better nor any worse than traditional public schools.

Charter school advocates, a powerful lobbying force in Tallahassee, contend that competition from charters has raised the bar for all public schools.

“This empowers parents by giving them options,” said Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools and superintendent of the Charter Schools of Excellence.

But opponents fear the charter movement has drained local districts of revenue while creating a parallel educational universe — one where there are no rules and no standards but hefty profits.

THEIR OWN GUIDELINES

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded by sales and property taxes. But unlike traditional schools, which are run by locally elected school boards in Florida, charters are managed by independent governing boards. They can hire and fire teachers as they please, pay whatever salaries they want, and cherry pick the best students, leaving struggling ones to the traditional schools.

Charter schools are subject to state accountability measures. Students take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests and schools receive grades. If a charter school receives back-to-back failing grades, its local school board can close it.

Charter schools are also businesses that must stay in the black to stay open. In Florida, they are run by a combination of non-profits and for-profit companies.

At their best, charter schools are teaching and learning laboratories — places where best practices are put into action and get results.

“The districts will be the first to tell you, they run a big bureaucracy and are very slow to make changes,” said Jonathan Hage, president of the Broward-based company Charter Schools USA, which runs the Renaissance and Keys Gate schools. “They’re like a ship in the ocean. We’re like a little key boat.”

Take the Archimedean Schools in West Kendall.

The schools, housed in a castle-like building that calls to mind the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, enroll about 750 students from kindergarten through high school. Students at all levels study classical Greek mathematics — in Greek — and spend an additional hour studying traditional mathematics each day. Greek language and philosophy are also built into the rigorous curriculum.

Archimedean has become a hub of academic excellence. Each year, its students earn some of the highest FCAT scores in the state. The school routinely wins national competitions in math and science. More than 900 children are on the waiting list, founder George Kafkoulis said.

Other charter schools fill a specific niche. The South Florida Autism Charter School was started in 2009 by a group of parents who said the public school district lacked programs for autistic children. The City of Hialeah became a partner, offering the school space in a public library.