"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, September 08, 2014

Florida Charters Corrupt as Jeb Bush

OK class, time for a pop quiz. If you want to open a charter school — a privately run school that gets public money — which of the following will you need to get approval?

a) A suitable building for classes
b) A proven background in education or business
c) A past with no bankruptcies or major blemishes
d) A computer with a cut-and-paste key

If you answered "d," you're right. And that shows something is very wrong.

"The way Florida authorizes charter schools is one of the worst in the country," Broward schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told me Friday, citing the study of a national charter group.

Jim Pegg, director of charter schools for the Palm Beach County school district, said it "all starts with the application process," with school districts handcuffed by state law to prevent proper vetting of applicants.

Basically, our charter-happy Legislature has established a screwy system where the default position is anybody who correctly fills out a lengthy application form must be approved by local school districts. 
 Never mind past performance. Never mind the ability to actually run a school.

And so, once again, another school year has launched with a few bad actors on the charter scene closing abruptly. Three charter schools in Broward and two in Palm Beach County shuttered in the first few weeks of school, creating a mess for students, parents and employees.

In the last three years, 10 charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties have closed within two months of opening. Another 17 longer-lasting charters in the two counties have closed or been ordered shut in the last three years.

"It's just not good," said Runcie.

Pegg said the same operator forced to close schools in Delray Beach and Riviera Beach on opening day has four applications pending for future charters. "How am I supposed to take that seriously?" Pegg asked. Yet state law says the district must treat those applications like any other and not consider the operator's track record.

Runcie is still exasperated by the operator who shut the Ivy Charter schools last year, stiffing teachers on paychecks and not paying rent for his buildings, after getting $500,000 in student funding. "Somehow, that's not criminal," Runcie said.

Clearly, it's time for some fixes. Charters schools have exploded in popularity in the last decade — there are now around 100 charters in Broward (serving 38,000 students) and 50 in Palm Beach County (serving 14,000 students). They were created to give parents and students more choice, and there are many good ones (my daughter switched to a charter school last year; so far it's worked out).

So this isn't meant as a rant against the overall concept of charter schools. It's a call for some easy fixes to prevent more fast-closing disasters. The good actors in the charter-school market should be on board with this.

Unfortunately, our Republican-dominated Legislature has let ideology trump common sense when it comes to regulating charter schools. . . .

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