Call them an undertested experiment or the key to America's educational success. Either way, there are more charter schools than ever before and the Obama administration has called on states to remove barriers to opening more of them. But 14 years after Florida opened the first independently run public school, even supporters say the movement is at a crossroads. The new Waiting for 'Superman' documentary spotlights successes, but others have struggled financially or academically. Proponents say charters must police themselves or face tighter limits. "We don't just want people starting charter schools for the fun of it or for the money," said Timothy Kitts of the Bay Haven Charter Academy in Panama City, who will lead a town hall meeting today on the future of such schools at the annual state charter conference in Orlando.
Around 150 charters have closed in Florida over the past decade — some by choice, others because of poor academic performance or financial problems. While they must be authorized by school districts and overseen by independent governing boards, many are run by private companies. In a recent report, the state auditor general found that 14 percent carried deficits in reserve accounts; 53 percent had accounting problems; and at least a dozen faced possible collapse. For example:
Revoked the charter for Life Skills Center last spring because of poor academic performance. The district has also raised questions about an F-rated charter run by Imagine Schools, which auditors say was nearly $1 million in deficit last spring.
Shut down three charters in 2009 because of poor academic performance. One, Anderson Academy, was also cited for "financial mismanagement" after falling months behind on rent and other bills. Last spring the district also rejected a charter by Imagine Schools, calling its budget insufficient and questioning its independence from the for-profit company.
Revoked the charter of the Language Academy charter school in 2007, citing financial mismanagement. Facing similar pressures, Richard Milburn Academy closed on its own.
Academie Da Vinci Charter School for the Arts in Dunedin has earned A grades in every year since it opened in 1997 except 2004, when it had to settle for a B. The school has 116 students. "Here, we can prioritize because we are small," said principal Susan Ray. "It's truly a grass roots school."
Terrace Community Middle School has earned all sorts of plaudits since its 1998 opening, including nine straight A grades. The school focuses on a "technologically advanced, back-to-basics" curriculum.
Dayspring Academy, Pasco's first charter, has earned nothing but A grades since opening in 2000. The school has two campuses in Port Richey and focuses on arts and a rigorous academic program.
After a C grade in its first year and some financial troubles, Gulf Coast Academy of Science and Technology has roared ahead of the pack. The county's only charter school has earned six straight A grades and in 2006 the second-highest score among all Florida middle schools on the FCAT.
Sources: Florida Department of Education, schools and companies.