Florida charters a top school choice option, and growing


By William Patrick | Florida Watchdog

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — New findings by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools are giving opponents of school choice a dose of the holiday blues.

Charter schools are the country’s fastest growing option for education reform, according to the December report.

GOT CHOICE?: An alternative to traditional public schools, charter enrollment has grown 70-percent in the past five years, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

About 2.7 million students attend public charters, a whopping 70 percent enrollment increase from just five years ago.

While the total number of charter school students is relatively small overall — about 5 percent compared to traditional public school enrollment — Florida is making noticeable gains.

In eight Florida school districts, at least 10 percent of respective student populations is enrolled in public charters, according to the report.

Miami-Dade and Broward rank among the top-10 counties in the country for most charter school students per school district, with about 15 percent of all students in both counties attending the pubic school alternatives. Orange County, encompassing Orlando, is ranked sixth in the nation among districts with the highest rates of growth in student enrollment, according to the report.

Only Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Detroit and Chicago had more charter students than Miami-Dade County in the 2013-14 school year.

Lynn Norman-Teck, communications director for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, says the numbers shouldn’t surprise; charter schools are meeting basic needs in the education market, she told Watchdog.

“Not every parent is happy with their assigned public school,” said Norman-Teck. “Some have the option of going to private schools if they can afford it, and some are stuck. With the advent of charter schools, parents have another option.”

Public charters get public funding, same as their traditional school counterparts, and therefore cannot charge tuition. They also tend to attract younger teachers who are often at an employment disadvantage due to the seniority model used in regular public schools.

“We hire a lot of young, innovative teachers who are looking for jobs,” said Norman-Teck. “With more flexibility, they’re choosing an option similar to why parents choose charters.”

But poaching talent and competing for education tax dollars hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The Florida Education Association, the state teachers’ union, offers a tip sheet on its website called “The Truth Behind Charters,” in which it attributes much of the growth of charter schools to profit seeking “large corporations bent on taking over our public schools.”

The FEA says it supports charters as long as they operate like regular public schools and allow their employees “the right to bargain collectively,” or expand the union.

In exchange for the ability to operate without many of the regulations that dominate traditional district schools, charters are supposed to show results — both academic and financial.

As 501(c)(3) nonprofits, charters are typically sponsored by school boards and must adhere to organizing contracts and state performance standards. At least 50 percent of teacher evaluations are tied to student performance.

But it’s not all apples and “A” grades.

While some like Miami-Dade’s Archimedean Schools — specializing in math and Greek language with 70 percent minority students — are among the best charters in the country, others have fallen short.

According to an investigative report by the Naples Daily News, 269 out of nearly 900 charter schools have closed in Florida since the schools were first permitted in 1996.

Even so, public education is more than ever defined by “parental demand,” according to Norman-Teck.

Translation: More charter schools.

“Every child is different,” she said. “In last 15 years parents have devoted themselves to researching the best fit for their child. This is something we’ve seen historically with college education but now is a reality for the K-12 model.”

In 2013-14, 623 charter schools served 229,233 students in 43 of Florida’s 67 counties.