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Florida approves charter district

The historic decision ends state control on Volusia schools. Hillsborough County's district is in line for similar status.

By DIANE RADO

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 12, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Badly in need of supplies, Volusia County art teachers have had trouble finding money, even when the school district textbook budget had a surplus.

The problem: Art supplies didn't fit the state's definition of "instructional materials," so the textbook budget couldn't be touched.

That kind of bureaucratic roadblock is about to be torn down.

In a historic step for Volusia, and for Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Cabinet approved a plan Tuesday that will make Volusia the state's first "charter school district." The designation means the entire school system will be free from state rules and regulations that educators say hamper their ability to run schools and educate students.

Hillsborough County is in line to become the next charter school district, with a proposal scheduled to come before the governor and Cabinet in September.

Across the nation, only a handful of school systems, mostly in California, have what could be construed as charter school districts. But those involve only a small number of schools, according to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Volusia County becomes the largest charter school district in the nation, with some 60,000 students and 65 schools on Central Florida's east coast. Hillsborough, which has more than 150,000 students, will become the largest charter school district in the nation if it gets approval.

That means Florida would be home to the biggest experiments in charter school reform in the country.

"We know that we're now in a big fish bowl," said Volusia schools superintendent William Hall, who has been an educator in Volusia for more than 30 years. He says the charter school district law will more significantly affect student achievement than any other reform he has seen.

Approved by the Legislature last year, charter school districts go beyond the concept of individual charter schools, which were approved in Florida in 1996. Charter schools are public schools run by parents, business people, universities or other private groups. They get government money but operate without a lot of government interference, giving them freedom to be innovative. The experiment is still new, and several charter schools in Florida have struggled to boost student achievement.

Under a charter school district, the entire school district is granted freedom from burdensome rules and regulations -- in exchange for a promise that student performance will improve. The district enters into a contract with the state.

Volusia outlined 29 performance goals designed to boost achievement:

By 2003, all schools will get a state grade of B or higher, based on student test scores.

The middle school science program will improve, with higher percentages of children in advanced courses.

Graduation rates will exceed state averages and increase each year.

Student absenteeism will decrease.

Family and community members will become more involved at school.

Volusia also plans to make sure students in kindergarten through 2nd grade are in classes of no more than 20 students.

In exchange, Volusia got permission to ignore several state regulations.

For example, school officials will have a lot more freedom to spend state money as they please. They can use money designated by the state for textbooks, for example, on other needs, such as art supplies.

The state also requires 135 hours of class time per high school credit. Volusia will now be able to set its own requirements. For example, it might take more hours to master advanced math courses.

Volusia also gets a waiver from a state prohibition on using portable classrooms that are more than 20 years old. The portables are renovated, and they can be used to help reduce class size, Hall said. District officials will also get more flexibility in choosing the textbooks they want for students, as the district got a waiver from a rule that requires districts to buy at least 50 percent of their books from a state list.

The governor praised the new flexibility, saying the school district can break away from the "constraining world of government and politics."

But the new flexibility comes with no new cash. The district wanted $15-million to make the improvements outlined in their charter district contract, Hall said, but the Legislature didn't approve the request.

"We were disappointed because this is a pilot program," Hall said, "and most pilot projects have some type of dollars attached." Without the new dollars, the district will have to stretch out accomplishing its goals. For example, it might take five or six years to reduce class sizes in the early grades.

The new flexibility should allow the districts to find the money they need for programs, Education Commissioner Tom Gallagher said.

"Reform doesn't always mean more money," Gallagher said.

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