Jefferson County schools in the Florida Panhandle, will become the State’s first charter district. The takeover by the Florida Department of Education was the result of a decade long struggle to improve the schools that simply made things worse. This latest move is a disaster for the teachers and staff. One half will lose their jobs for reasons that have little to do with their competence.
What happened in Jefferson County, Florida to cause the State to turn the district over to Somerset, a privately run school board that is part of the for-profit Academica charter school chain?
(Yes, it is the subject of the Miami Herald’s series on Cashing in on Kids. It is also run by former Florida Representative Eric Fresen’s sister and brother-in-law.)
Jefferson County is a low-income rural area right next to Tallahassee. The County has not changed much since 2000. There are about one thousand more people living there now, and the percentage of the white population has risen slightly from 60 to 62%. The school age population, however, has declined by 250 or so children. Nothing dramatic occurs until the school district enrollment is examined.
Jefferson County public school enrollments declined from 2,066 to 77o over the last sixteen years. The percentage of white students was never high–28% in 2002. It has dropped to 17% in 2016. So, Jefferson County schools predominately serve poor, black students.
As school enrollments dropped, the district faced serious financial problems. In 2009, the State declared the district a ‘financial emergency‘. It was running out of money. The elementary and middle schools were closed and moved to the high school. Fifty-five percent of all students were placed in relocatable class rooms.
The district was able to eliminate its budget deficit by cutting staff and bus routes and inflicting across-the-board salary cuts. Parents, however, left the district for the three private schools in the area and for Tallahassee’s schools. ( The three private schools report a 7% minority enrollment.)
Now the remaining students will be left to a privately owned and operated charter school. The firm is not one of the ‘high quality charter schools’ promised in the HB 7069 legislation. Rather, the contract was awarded to Academica, the only charter chain that applied. It will receive the usual state funding plus an infusion of approximately $ 1 million in additional funding. Where was that funding when Jefferson County schools needed it? Where will it be when the cost goes up as more schools fail across the State?
This is yet another example of the consequences of short-sighted school choice policies. Schools do not get better; they get worse. Parents have no leverage with the private school boards that take over. The only choice left for dissatisfied low income families is to somehow get to Tallahassee. Then what; more of the same? This can be a downward spiral for all schools.