A weekend interview with Michael Kooi, executive director of Florida's Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice
Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature have made increased options other than traditional K-12 schools a key focus for their education efforts. That has meant changing the rules for charter schools, McKay and corporate tax credit scholarships, opportunity scholarships and several other programs. Mike Kooi, executive director of the state Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice, is charged with overseeing much of the implementation. A commerical litigation lawyer who has served as an FDOE attorney and also as education policy chief or the Florida House, Kooi spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek about the changing role of school choice in Florida.
I would like to start off with the major changes you are seeing, especially for parents and kids. What kinds of new choices to they have or will they be having in the coming years?
Obviously you start with the legislative changes that took place this past session. Certainly probably the biggest one that has been talked about is the high performing charter schools bill. Obviously what that does is provide more of a streamlined application process for our highest performing schools. I think the advantage of that is it's going to allow some of the operators of charter schools to provide more options for kids. The last numbers we've got for last year show we've got 34,000 kids on waiting lists across the state for A and B charter schools. There's obviously a demand out there. Certainly we're doing everything we can to make sure the charter schools that aren't meeting success either get help or get closed.
Have you told school districts how that is going to functionally work?
In the statute, it basically sets forth the criteria that is required to meet the high performing status. There is basically two main issues with regard to that. First, you had to have had in the past three years either three A's or two A's and a B. ... If you meet that criteria, then the next thing you look at is whether or not you had clean audits over the past three years. If you meet those two criteria then you have the ability to replicate. Certainly that ability extends beyond the district borders. If there's a charter school in Miami-Dade that says I want to open a school in Broward, then that particular provision would apply to them.
What does the school board say at that point? Here you go? Here's your charter? Or do they have some ...
No. There's still a review process and it's just a little bit more streamlined and the burden on the district for denying the application is a little bit higher because of the fact that they have a proven track record. But there still is a process and once they get through that application there is still negotiation for that charter. So it's not like the district doesn't have any ability to affect the situation. They certainly have the ability to ask the questions they need to ask in terms of where are you putting the school, do you have the facilities, and how are you going to attract kids from this particular neighborhood. Those are all things that are part of that process.
Does the local board criteria and things like innovative curriculum still count?
Oh yeah. Obviously, to the extent you're replicating something that's already being done, I guess you could argue whether that's being innovative or not. Just because you're replicating something doesn't mean it's not innovative. But the idea at least with this is to build on something that we already have that's working and that we know is successful, and to provide the ability for those folks to provide the option to other kids who may be on waiting lists for other charter schools. ...
As far as some of the other things go, you have the expansion of some other programs like the scholarships, which we call vouchers but some don't. Are you seeing that the changes in the law will lead to increased participation, or is it really just a paper change?
Well, I think the change in the McKay scholarship program will open more opportunities for kids in the public schools that have 504 plans. That is certainly more than a paper change. That is going to open up new possibilities for, I think we had stated during session it was approximately 51,000 kids. From what I understand those numbers may be a little low. ... I don't expect all those kids to take a McKay scholarship. Obviously, there's about 360,000-370,000 ESE kids and there's only 20,000 taking McKay. So it's really a very small percentage and it's mainly for parents and children who feel they have a better option somewhere else and they take advantage of it. ...
Will there be more oversight of the schools that are receiving the students?
There weren't any legislative changes that gave the department any more authority in that regard. Of course we're always looking for ways as a department that we can do a better job of ensuring that the private schools that receive the scholarships are following the laws and making sure the kids are safe and that sort of thing. I don't know if that answers your question.
Well, I read those stories in New Times, and it just got you to wondering how much the state can actually do to make sure they're real schools doing something real.
There are always ways that things can improve. I would point out that what he did was ask for all the inspector general cases that we've had for the past 3-4 years. If somebody did the same thing with the Medicare or Medicaid programs ... and then presented that if that's the norm for those programs, it wouldn't look good. The truth is the McKay program provides great services to the vast majority of kids. The cases that he brought up were schools that we have kicked out of the program. I would say in that sense our oversight is working. We would like to prevent a lot of that stuff as quickly as we can and we are certainly working on ways to do that.
Do you get a lot of calls from parents in your offices asking for more information, more choices, more availability of things they can do away from their regular schools?
Absolutely. ... Certainly during this time of year is very busy. January and February when a lot of districts are doing their choice related things, you're having to make decisions about where your child is going to be, we get lots of calls. ... We get questions about all the programs, whether its the scholarships, or magnet schools, or charter schools ... virtual, you name it.
What are some of the big ticket questions, the ones you see the most of?
I don't know if we've ever done an analysis of that. I think most of them have to do with eligibility. ... They don't always have the ability to find those things out quickly.
Do you think that school districts are doing a bad job, then, of letting people know about their choices? Because I've seen it both ways. I've seen places like Hillsborough where they have so many different choices and they have presentations all over. And then I've seen counties that barely approve one charter school.
Well, I think you've hit the nail on the head in the sense that the districts are ... it's different in every district in terms of first of all, the number of options available and second of all the effectiveness of the communication of those options to parents. I will say this. I think the districts are improving greatly not only in terms of the number of options that the provide, but they're also doing better in providing choice fairs and things like that. Certainly in the department we're doing our best to work with the districts. We've got parent centers, mostly in low-income areas, that are staffed with people that can provide information to parents about the choice options available. Of course those folks go to the choice fairs the districts hold. It is increasing. But I think you've hit the nail on the head. One of the big challenges as these programs continue to grow ... is to provide that information to parents so they can make an informed choice for their kids.
Is there anything stopping school districts from doing the same things that these other choice providers are doing?
No. That's one of the things I think, if you ask anybody at a district and they answered honestly they'd have to admit these choice programs, while they've been controversial, have resulted in districts providing a lot more options. There's more magnet programs now than there's ever been before. Career academies. There's controlled open enrollment. Districts are doing much better in terms of finding ways to meet the competition they've got. I think that is resulting in benefits for kids. They've got all these wide arrays of programs they can choose from, whether it's the district or scholarship programs or charter schools, virtual schools. Those options continue to grow and I think that's been one of the benefits....
But yet people still want to leave.
Every child is different. Every child may need a different environment to learn in. While a public school, or a magnet, or a career academy might be the right environment for one child, it may not be right for another. ...
Are there any things that I am missing?
Since you mentioned the high performing charter school legislation, I did want to respond to something that was in an editorial. ... It kind of criticized that legislation by pointing out that there were 15 F charter schools in the state. I think that kind of missed the point of the legislation. Obviously, we're not happy that there are any F charter schools. But that legislation doesn't allow the replication of those failing charter schools. It targets the A and B charter schools for replication. And frankly, the last two years 72 percent of our charters have been A or B charter schools, and only 6 percent have been F schools. I think a little bit of clarification there would be helpful in terms of what the whole point of that legislation was. It certainly wasn't to benefit failing charter schools.