Who should approve new charter schools–local districts or the state? Would a university institute funded by the legislature do a better job? Now the State Board of Education has the final say. But, they do not always get it right.
Legislation moving through the Florida House and Senate includes a provision to create the Florida State University Charter School Institute. It would review charter proposals and conduct evaluation studies. Will FSU be able to improve the charter authorization process? Can it evaluate local needs, or do they not matter? If a form is filled out correctly, is that enough to make a charter school a valuable contribution to a local district?
I watched the April School Board of Education meeting. A comment was made about how fortunate Florida was to have the DOE, the Governor, and the legislature all on the same school reform page. Yet, when the attorney for Palm Beach County spoke about denials of charter schools, it is clear that there are practical, important issues that are too easily dismissed. Some checks and balances are needed.
For years, districts have resisted attempts by the legislature to take charter authorization away. Their decisions can be appealed, but the reform advocates still try to centralize charter authorization in order to expand charters with less interference. One attempt to centralize, the Florida Schools Excellence Commission, was ruled unconstitutional in 2008. Only districts can authorize charters. The newly proposed Florida State University institute stops just short of authorization, but its proposal review should carry weight. Will it provide cover for the State School Board of Education? What happened at this month’s meeting is instructive.
Palm Beach closed two charter schools and denied authorization for a third. Champs and Lakeland closed. One had not even opened. The other opened one day and announced it was closing that day for financial reasons. The district had denied both charter applications the year before, but it was overruled by the State Board of Education (SBE). The district was right; the SBE was wrong.
This year Palm Beach also denied a new proposal from Charter Schools USA. CSUSA already has several schools in Palm Beach that are under enrolled. This new school has no facility. It will be located in the building with another CSUSA charter school. The new charter offers nothing new or innovative. The district said the school was not needed. It already has over 50 charter schools, and the financial impact on the district of so many charters is significant. The State Board of Education over ruled the district. The charter will open. Why?
Senator Bullard filed an amendment to the current charter school bill SB 1552 to require charter schools to fill an instructional or facility need. The CSUSA proposal would not qualify. School Board opponents argue that there is no clear definition for ‘innovative’ schools. The definition of ‘need’ is also at issue. Charters in Palm Beach have waiting lists; do they qualify as a definition for need? Do we allow parents to choose semi private, selective schools with no regard for the financial or social costs?
Which charters improve instructional opportunities and which do not is mired in the politics of expanding school choice. Florida has over 600 charters, but it has closed 282. It is as if the policy is to ‘take the good with the bad’. The Sun-Sentinel published Florida Charter Schools Unsupervised . The article describes the weak state requirements for authorizing charters. FSU cannot change the rules. Thus, it is not clear how it can improve the process. The legislature has to do that. The State Board of Education has to accept its responsibility to maintain a high quality, efficient public school system.