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Charter schools: A solution to overcrowding?

For-profit companies have offered to build schools to ease overcrowding in Pasco. For now, as described in the story below, the district is not interested. But around the state, for-profit charter schools have become a quiet success.

By KENT FISCHER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 15, 2002


LAND O'LAKES -- Each year, school enrollments in south and central Pasco County climb a little higher and the classrooms grow a little more crowded.

Superintendent John Long acknowledges that the district is barely treading water. With more than 2,000 students coming to Pasco each year, he says double sessions are a real possibility.

Wesley Chapel Elementary, only four weeks old, already is students have the option of starting school later in the day, an effort to ease crowding during the morning. Wesley Chapel High, Weightman Middle and Sand Pine Elementary all are overflowing.

Twice in the past two years private companies have offered to build and run charter schools that would have come cheap to the district and created hundreds of new classroom seats for its most-crowded subdivisions.

Twice their proposals went nowhere.

Why wasn't Long more receptive to an idea that could have helped him address his district's most pressing problem?

"I just wasn't interested at that point," he said. "They never showed us any numbers and they never came back."

The first pitch came in August 2001, from Chancellor Beacon Academies, a for-profit charter school company based in Coconut Grove. The company's president, a former Miami-Dade school superintendent, met with Long and Pinellas County Superintendent Howard Hinesly to sell them on a new middle school on Keystone Road that would have served kids from both districts.

Long said he was open to the idea but that he never heard back from the company.

A few months later, executives from Charter Schools USA paid Long a visit. That company runs about 20 charters in Florida and Texas, and often teams up with districts struggling to keep up with growth.

The executives, though, didn't have an appointment and Long didn't have time to meet with them immediately. Eventually, they left. Long hasn't heard from them since.

Corporate charter companies use their own money, state grants and partnerships with developers to build their own schools. Then they get contracts from local districts to run them as charter schools, publicly funded schools that are free to parents. The companies keep some of the schools' revenues as profit, and the districts get classrooms that they otherwise couldn't have afforded.

Chancellor has struck such deals with the Osceola school district, while Charter Schools USA has similar deals in Broward.

The corporate charters are immensely popular with parents. The schools are small. They never have portables, and their enrollments don't exceed 600 kids. Their classes are small, too, with no more than 25 students.

The corporate charters require students to wear uniforms and parental involvement is mandatory. They market themselves as having a private school atmosphere, selling points that score with affluent suburban parents.

Long said he doesn't doubt such schools would become popular in the new Pasco suburbs. But with seven new schools on the drawing board, Long said he feels no pressure to hire private companies to help ease crowding.

He's also concerned that the companies do not yet have long track records of academic quality.

But he's not closed to the idea entirely, either.

"It seems to be working at least reasonably well in some districts," Long said. "Let's see some numbers. Let's see how much control we would have" over the schools.

-- Kent Fischer covers education in Pasco County. He can be reached in west Pasco at 869-6241 or toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241. His e-mail address is kfischer@sptimes.com.

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