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Charter schools run wild

Published April 1, 2007


A decade after creating its first publicly funded charter school, Florida has turned a worthy educational experiment into a blank check for eager entrepreneurs. As a new report by the Orlando Sentinel suggests, the push for quantity has supplanted the pursuit of quality. And the students are the ones who suffer.

Just ask Don Gaetz, a Republican freshman senator and former Okaloosa school superintendent, about the transformation. "Charter schools were a movement," he told the Sentinel, "but now charter schools are an industry. They have lobbyists - they walk around in thousand-dollar suits, some of them."

Those lobbyists, and an embarrassingly compliant state Department of Education, have turned charter education into a $560-million-a-year enterprise that is so immune to oversight that an Escambia school convicted of fraudulently using its students to work on road crews is still receiving tax money. A Pensacola school where not a single student has passed the state's standardized reading and math tests in four years is still receiving tax money. A Vero Beach school investigated twice for suspicion of cheating on standardized tests is still receiving tax money.

Jim Warford, former K-12 chancellor at DOE, told the Sentinel his bosses actually discouraged oversight. "The only good answer I got was, 'There is accountability because the parents are free to choose,' " he said. "It was intellectually indefensible that you could take a student out of a high-accountability district school and turn them loose into the Wild West of the free market that had no accountability."

Warford is right. The state's hands-off approach is indefensible, and it is getting worse. In recent years, lawmakers have removed the cap on charter schools, eliminated many of the original education goals and undermined the supervisory role of local school boards. Last year, incredibly, lawmakers created an appointed commission that can approve charter schools in any county for virtually any reason.

That new commission is loaded up with charter operators and advocates, and the new chairman of the state Board of Education, T. Willard Fair, is himself a charter school operator. Fair is also not the least bit shy about his own bias. The law says his board must consider granting school districts the right to continue overseeing charter schools, but he told a recent conference of charter school operators: "It's going to be hard, very hard, to think about granting any authorization to any local school district. I don't trust them."

How's that for objectivity?

Like so many of the other privatized approaches that Florida has pursued in recent years, charter schools have been treated not as a means but as an end unto themselves. The more, the better, period. In such an environment, it no longer matters that almost half the charter schools receive no grade from the state, that they are collectively serving fewer disabled and poor students, that some schools are being allowed to pick their students, that some schools spend more on administration than classrooms, that self-dealing has allowed some operators to profit from leases or loans connected to affiliated companies.

All that seems to matter to DOE is that the numbers climb, and indeed they have. Statewide enrollment is now 98,000, second in the nation and the equivalent of Florida's eighth-largest school district. Yet here is the most DOE can report about the educational achievement: "The learning gains witnessed among charter school students and traditional public school students provide no consistent pattern nor trend over time."

The sad reality is that no one really knows whether charter schools are, as a whole, serving students well. We certainly know that some of them, including Fair's own Liberty City school, are achieving remarkable results with students who have otherwise struggled. We know that some were created by idealistic, resourceful community activists who have toiled to turn around the lives of students who got lost in larger public schools. But we also know that some schools have operated like a public piggy bank and that a Jacksonville operator boasted last year that she had turned away poor achievers so her school would get a better state grade. "You've got to play the game," she said at a charter town-hall meeting, "or we are not going to survive."

The sad reality is that because Florida has put more ahead of better, no one can say with clear authority just how well the students in charter schools are being served. In a state that so assiduously measures how each education dollar is invested and how each public school student performs, that's simply unacceptable.

[Last modified April 1, 2007, 01:18:41]

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