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No mystery schools

Published October 23, 2003

Two private companies with incestuous business ties and no experience in opening or running a classroom have peppered the state with applications to enter the multimillion-dollar charter school business. This venture looks more like an attempt to capitalize on a business opportunity than an effort to serve an unmet need in public elementary and middle schools. School districts in Pinellas, Hillsborough and other area counties should reject the proposals.

The companies, Academies of America and Academies of Excellence, have applied to operate 19 schools in 10 counties in Central Florida. While charter schools in Florida are privately run, they are publicly funded and by law defined as "public schools." The purpose of charters is to offer an academic curriculum and environment that uniquely complements traditional public schools. A charter school might focus on the arts or technology, serve nearby working parents or provide a greater emphasis on discipline than existing schools in the public system.

Indeed, serving a niche market is required by law, which is why some school districts have questioned the academies' proposals. Some district officials have called the bids cookie-cutter proposals that fail to address the needs of specific counties. In Hillsborough, for example, the Academies of America's bids to operate an elementary and middle school have no clear educational focus. Critical details are vague or missing - like where the campuses would be located and who would run them.

It is inconceivable that any school system, public or private, would embark on such an ambitious school-construction plan without first addressing these fundamental questions. The academies' proposals say little about how the company would recruit students, how it would achieve racial diversity in the classroom or how the private company and its sponsor, the school districts, would resolve disputes over school operations. Pinellas officials said they tried to meet with the company to brief it on the county's school choice plan, under the court settlement in the desegregation case, that gives the NAACP Legal Defense Fund a role in deciding the location of school sites. "That's why it was so important for them to meet with us," said Steve Swartzel, a Pinellas schools administrator. "(But) they did not ask to meet with us before they applied."

The schools would also deliver many of their services by partnering with companies run by some of the same people who would operate the schools. Two firms affiliated with the charter company's founder would have a role in developing curriculum, training teachers or seeking grants. Two academy officials are also associated with the Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion, which would work with the schools to give economically disadvantaged students access to technology.

At a minimum school districts have before them charter plans that lack any genuine local flavor. (In its application to Hillsborough, when asked about local partners, the Academies of America couldn't offer a single name, vowing only that "local business leaders and local government officials will be sought for positions on the (school's) advisory board.") Charter schools were designed to be freer and more innovative but also accountable. We see no such balance here. Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and other school districts should reject the proposals when they come to a vote in the coming weeks. There is too much mystery here.

[Last modified May 18, 2004, 16:15:56]


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