Florida Charter Schools: Hot and Humid with Passing Storms (EdSector Archive)
12 May 2006 | by Bryan Hassel, Michelle Godard Terrell, Julie Kowal
Florida is often referred to as "school choice central" because of its many publicly-funded school choice initiatives, which include voucher programs for students with special needs and those in low-performing schools, virtual schools, and magnet schools. But among all the programs, none has reached as many children and families as charter schools. In the 2005‑06 school year, there were over 300 charter schools in 42 of the state's 67 school districts. The schools served nearly 100,000 students, about 3 percent of the state's public school students.
Charter schools have flourished in Florida largely because of the state's rapid population growth. In fact, many of the districts that are experiencing more than a 10 percent increase in student enrollment such as Polk, Lake and Osceola Counties have more than 10 percent of their students in charter schools. And one high-growth district, Sumter County, has over 25 percent of its students enrolled in charter schools. To be sure, the politics of approving a charter school is easier in these booming districts because charters typically absorb new enrollments that might otherwise have required more school construction.
Still, nearly half of the charter schools in the 2004-05 school year were located in the state's five largest school districts: Miami-Dade, Broward, Hillsborough, Palm Beach and Orange. These districts enroll 51 percent of the state's charter school students and 44 percent of all public school students. The remaining charter schools were located in 37 other school districts, the majority of which had five or fewer charter schools. Eleven school districts had just one charter school in operation.
The charter school movement in Florida enjoys strong and increasingly bipartisan political support. Republican Governor Jeb Bush has long been a fervent advocate of charter schools. Indeed, Bush and T. Willard Fair, vice chair of the State Board of Education and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Miami, organized Liberty City Charter School, the first charter school in Florida. Republican state Sens. Stephen Wise and Daniel Webster and Reps. Rafael Arza, John Stargel and John Legg have also been vocal supporters of the charter school movement, and Legg even serves as an administrator at Dayspring Academy Charter School in Port Richey, Fla. Support for charter schools is somewhat polarized politically, but a group of centrist Democrats, including Rep. Ron Greenstein and Sens. Loranne Ausley and Ron Klein, have actively supported legislation to improve the quality of Florida's charter schools, including bills to create an independent authorizer in the state. Several of the state's institutions of higher education and the Urban League of Greater Miami have also actively supported charter schools, and many legislators send their children to charter schools.
As in other states, charter advocates in Florida have faced resistance from teachers unions, school boards and some parent-teacher associations. These groups opposed the initial charter legislation and have fought several subsequent amendments. In 2006, however, the Florida School Boards Association, the Florida Association of District School Superintendents and the Florida Education Association decided to neither support nor oppose charter school legislation in their legislative platforms. Instead they planned to battle Florida's school voucher programs. In fact, one might argue that voucher programs have provided political cover for charter schools in Florida; groups that might have spent much of their time fighting charters have focused on vouchers instead.
Since charter schools were first authorized in 1996, state policymakers have tried to promote their growth. They've established a $5 million facilities fund and set a high cap on the number of charter schools that could be authorized in each school district. They also expanded charter renewal terms from three to up to five years. Measured by volume, Florida's first decade of charter schooling has certainly been quite successful. The number of charter schools has grown from five to 334 in less than a decade.
But the rapid growth has raised its own problems—problems that must be addressed if the state wants to continue the experiment. Most notably, the second half of the charter school autonomy-accountability bargain has been largely unfulfilled. Until recently few schools have been shut down for poor academic performance. Although 62 Florida charter schools have been closed, the majority have been shut down due to financial and enrollment issues; academic laggards have largely been allowed to remain open.
To some, this situation represents the charter school ideal: free market experimentation that gives parents a wide range of choices. But it also gives ammunition to charter school critics, who argue that some charter school operators fail to serve their students and fritter away state and federal dollars. In response, the state has passed some measures that help weed out such unsuccessful operators. Specifically, the state has strengthened local application and review standards and enforced charter revocation provisions.
This report examines both the achievements and the shortfalls of Florida's first decade of charter schooling. We review Florida's charter school legislation and its evolution over time as well as examine charter schools' performance. We also discuss some of the challenges facing chartering in the state and offer some recommendations for improvement.
Among our principal findings:
Charter schools have tremendous support. Charter schools are the most widespread and popular of Florida's school choice options and enjoy strong support with parents, teachers and legislators. Indeed, over the past few years, charter advocates have successfully passed nearly all of their pro-charter proposals through the legislature. But some of the legislative support for chartering hinges on compromises that weaken charter schools including making districts the primary authorizers and funding charter schools below parity. Efforts to change those conditions face an uphill battle.
Florida has embraced innovative charter programs. Florida has been a leader by developing several creative charter policies such as workplace charter schools, charter schools in a municipality, capital outlay funding and the use of impact fees to support charter facilities financing.
School accountability is spotty. Charter schools in Florida are subject to the same state accountability system as district schools. But because they serve smaller numbers of students and have odd grade configurations, about 40 percent of charter schools were not assigned grades by the state and 12 percent were not subject to Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) designations under the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Student achievement is mixed. Based on absolute achievement scores, fewer charter schools excel and more are failing than Florida's district schools. But students who enroll in charter schools typically start out further behind than their district school peers, and comparisons of annual test-score gains show that student achievement in charter schools is about the same as district schools.
District authorizing is ineffective. Local school districts serve as the primary authorizer of charter schools, and some have been indifferent or hostile to qualified applicants. Even charter-friendly districts often lack the capacity to effectively manage the exponential growth of charter schools in their jurisdictions.
Florida's charter schools are underfunded. Florida charter schools receive an average of 11.4 percent less funding than district schools, and financial problems have consistently been the most common reason for charter school closure. Although Florida has supported innovative facilities funding programs for some charter schools, many charters are overburdened with debt.
Our report provides several recommendations to help Florida and other states improve the vitality and quality of their charter schools:
Enhance the quality of charter school authorizing. Florida's charter schools vary greatly in achievement largely because of the varying quality of authorizing districts. State policymakers should hold authorizers accountable for their schools' results, establish alternative routes to charter authorizing and expand current authorizer capacity.
Strengthen charter school performance. Compared to district schools, Florida's charter schools are performing relatively well. But far too many charters are failing. Policymakers and charter advocates should work to improve charter schools' performance by actively recruiting more successful charter school operators and requiring authorizers to crack down on consistently low-performing schools.
Ensure charter schools' financial viability. Many of Florida's charter schools are struggling financially. The state can help ensure the future financial viability of charter schools by making their funding equal with district schools. States can also provide finance-related technical assistance to charter school operators. The state's first experience with the distribution of impact fees to charter schools suggests that policymakers should establish a formula or guidelines for distributing these funds.
Extend charter schools' exemption from the class size amendment. Charter schools should be free to use innovative teaching and educational approaches that best serve their students, and the state's policy on class size reduction is exactly the type of regulation from which charter schools should be exempt.
Improve measures of charter school performance. The state should require charter school authorizers to have performance standards for schools that cannot be held accountable under the state accountability plan or NCLB and to report annually whether performance outcomes are being met.
Insulate charter schools from the Florida Supreme Court voucher decision. Some believe that the recent state Supreme Court decision threatens the legal status of charter schools. State legislators should ensure that the court's reasoning in the voucher case will not apply to other school choice programs—such as charter schools—in the future.
Coalesce charter support. The splintered focus of the state's charter support organizations is a missed opportunity. Forging a more unified movement would help provide greater technical and other support and more effective advocacy for high-quality charter schools across the state.