It is Time to Act on Charter Regulation Reform

child speakingThe League is not a voice in the wilderness.  We help children’s voices be heard.

Today’s Sun Sentinel ran an editorial calling for many of the same changes in regulations that the League identified.  There are three bills that deserve and need our support.  We posted details in this blog yesterday.  See: Charter School Bills Going in Different Directions.

Read the Sun Sentinel editorial published today.  Resolve to write to your legislative delegation now.

Florida lawmakers appear to be listening to the statewide uproar over high-stakes testing, proposing limits on the never-ending stream of exams that students must take. Hopefully they’ll listen just as hard to the calls for reforming the laws that govern charter schools. A recent review panel, which included supporters and critics, came to the conclusion that tighter laws are needed.

Are they ever.

More than three dozen South Florida charter schools have shuttered or been ordered to close since the fall of 2012. Of those, at least 10 lasted two months or less. Some communities are taking action themselves.

In Lauderhill, city commissioners in December imposed a six-month moratorium on new charter and private schools because of concerns about their operations. In Palm Beach County, the School Board rejected an application by Charter Schools USA to open a seventh location, saying it failed to meet a legal requirement that charter schools offer “innovative learning opportunities.”

Yet charter schools continue to open without proper backing and oversight.

In the meantime, Gov. Rick Scott is seeking $100 million for charter school construction and maintenance, a $25 million increase over this year. Charter schools have received more than $200 million in state funding the past three years for maintenance and renovation projects, while traditional public schools received nothing. This year, though, the governor has proposed $60 million for construction needs at traditional public schools.

Of course, charter schools are public schools that are privately run. They get public money. They just don’t have to live by the rules that hold regular public schools accountable.

And that’s where the reform is needed.

A Sun Sentinel investigation last year showed how just about anybody who can fill out an application can open a charter school and get public funds. If the charter school operators have had past financial problems, that doesn’t seem to stop them from opening again.

And when a charter closes, parents and students are the ones who suffer, scrambling to find another school in a hurry. All because the state hasn’t demanded enough accountability from charter school operators.

Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, has proposed a bill that would allow new charter schools to open only if they fill a niche not offered by area public schools. Applicants would have to clearly demonstrate that their school would meet needs the district does not or cannot provide.

That certainly makes sense.

“There’s no point in opening a charter school unless it’s going to provide some quality alternative to what we provide,” Broward School Superintendent Robert Runcie said earlier this month. “It can’t be the same.”  More is needed for charter schools to regain the public’s trust — and the trust of parents and students who want an alternative form of education.

Financial accountability is critical. Last year, Runcie advocated for a law that would require charter schools to demonstrate financial wherewithal, including a line of credit or escrow worth $250,000.

That’s a great idea, but more is needed.

Legislators, and Florida Education Secretary Pam Stewart, must work on legislation to:

  • Require charter school operators to prove financial viability.
  • Require charter school operators to report a permanent address months in advance of opening. Broward tried to reject applications from operators who couldn’t provide a “certificate of occupancy” within 30 days of the school year, but the industry went to Tallahassee and got that reduced to 15 days. As a result, Broward taxpayers have witnessed charter school students sent on daily field trips because their new school didn’t have a classroom or desk for them.
  •  Require charter school operators to undergo rigorous criminal background checks.
  •  Allow school districts to take the past history of charter operators into account.

These recommendations sound like common sense, particularly when the education of our children — and the expenditure of public funds — is involved. Unfortunately, these ideas are not the law, which is why we have charter school failures and abuses.

Nobody is saying all charter schools are a problem. Indeed, among the more than 600 in Florida, many are well-run and get excellent school grades. And parents like the options and innovations that charter schools provide. But charter schools must be able to prove they are fiscally sound, and not about to abandon parents and students.

Charter schools get public funds, and it’s up to our lawmakers to hold public schools — ALL public schools — accountable.

Posted in Charter School Management, Florida.

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