The options for balancing the district budget are not good. If the district draws down its reserve fund, what do they do next year? The district anticipates that there will be 2,000 new enrollments in charters next fall. Charters in Duval County have their own challenges.
On the surface, it would appear that Duval County, like many counties, is facing the reality that splitting money with charters means that no one has enough to do what needs to be done. What is going on?
Superintendent Vitti was quoted as saying that charter number will only increase. “The only way it will not increase is if the voters educate themselves on the differences.”
Charters are expanding in Duval. Let’s look at the data. In 1999, Duval had 7 charters, it now has 34 charter schools. Eleven charter schools have closed due to financial mismanagement, low performance, and cheating on the FCAT. This year, Scholar Development closed after 5 months for not having liability insurance.
Charters unrolled a lower percentage of students on free and reduced lunch: 39.5 vs. 57.4 percent in traditional public schools. This year, the school board approved nearly doubling the enrollment of Seacoast Charter elementary school and to open a Duval Charter in Southside. The charter is projected to enroll 661 students. It will be operated by Renaissance Schools which are part of the Charter Schools USA for-profit educational management firm in Fort Lauderdale.
Duval has three charter high schools that serve students who have dropped out and must earn credits to graduate. According to the Florida Times Union, Lone Star, Murray Hill, and Biscayne High operated by Accelerated Learning Solutions, an Orlando Company, are supposed to help students earn their diplomas by the time they are 21 years old. Lone Star charter has 325 students and enrolled and receives $5,400 per student. Other drop out retrieval schools are similar, and graduation rates are very low, about eight percent which is an increase from about 2% the previous year.
Credit retrieval charters typically operate in four hour blocks of time. Lone Star was cited by the Florida Auditor General for receiving funds for more hours than they actually taught. The charter owes the state $229, 431. The school will increase its hours next year, but the debt remains.
Traditional public schools outperform charters in the elementary grades. Due to the success rate at KIPP, charter middle schools on average, outperform the traditional middle schools. KIPP has a military style culture with highly structured drill and practice exercises tied to achievement testing. It also has a longer day and school year. The reality is that charters vary on academic achievement in the same way traditional schools do. In other states, KIPP schools have had exceptionally high drop out rates. Understanding these numbers is a challenge, however, because KIPP spokesmen say their drop out rate is similar to regular schools, they just do not enroll new students as others leave. Thus, the retained students are a self selected group.
The arguments over achievement lead nowhere. The questions that are now showing greater urgency revolve around money. Small schools and small classes, charter or public, are more expensive. For charters, the money to operate tends to come out of teachers’ salaries and benefits. The lack of regulation on profits accrued through facility payments make cuts to other budget areas inevitable. Many charters turn to fund raising or fees disguised as donations.
Regular public schools have to cut support services and elective courses. They are supporting underutilized buildings. The money to support achievement testing has little positive impact and helps drive teachers out of the profession. We need to find a way out of the morass, and the public has to understand the costs of current school reforms. School choice sounds good, but maybe we should consider a new motto: School Choice is a False Choice. It leads nowhere we really want to go.