Sunday, July 22, 2018
Education

As Florida charter schools grow, critics watch

TAMPA

From dual-language kindergarten, when they are taught a pointer is un puntero, to the day they continue on to Lennard High School, students at the Redlands Christian Migrant Association charter schools get a specialized education.

It conforms to state standards and, judging by the test scores, surpasses them.

But the schools — an elementary and a middle grades "leadership academy" — also offer help with immigration issues. Families have access to a food bank on the Wimauma campus. And the staff keeps track of children who leave, following the migrant farm worker circuit to North Carolina and Tennessee.

"We provide more than just a school," principal Mark Haggett said. "We are targeting migrant families, and we are the only charter school in Hillsborough County that is doing that."

Each year in Tampa Bay and across Florida, more families are choosing charters, which use tax dollars but are run independently of school districts. Pasco County saw an impressive 31 percent jump in charter enrollment this year. Hillsborough went up 12 percent and Pinellas 3 percent — in each instance far outpacing growth rates in regular public schools.

Successful models include Hillsborough's Pepin academies, which serve students with learning disabilities, and the Plato group in Pinellas, which focuses on rigorous academics and hopes to expand into Hillsborough and Pasco.

But the expansion is raising practical concerns about how some charters are governed and whether the schools, free to experiment, are falling short on the promise that they would light the way as classroom innovators.

Add to that the common worry among school districts that charters eat into their state funding.

The competition has many district officials nervous, even in places like bus operations, where Jim Beekman, the new Hillsborough County School District transportation chief, recently felt compelled to warn his employees about the threat from charters.

"Before, we were the only show in town," he told a high school auditorium filled with drivers. "And I'm going to tell you right now that charter schools cannot provide the education that Hills­borough County can provide. I guarantee it. "

• • •

Beekman's guarantee is echoed by a group of retired educators from the League of Women Voters who spent much of the summer researching charters.

They took particular interest in Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA, a management company owned almost entirely by founder Jonathan Hage and serving close to one-fifth of Hills­borough's 15,000 charter students.

Combing through real estate and permitting records, league members learned that schools use their state tax dollars to pay management fees to Charter Schools USA and rent to Red Apple Development, which Hage also owns.

The league contends that, compared with district-run schools, the charter schools wind up with a far smaller share of their money in the classroom. Officials at Charter Schools USA say the comparisons are unfair because charter schools often must finance the cost of their buildings. Rent is assessed as a way to pay back the loans.

"Management fees are paid last," chief financial officer Richard Garcia said. They're not assessed if the school is under-enrolled and does not receive full state funding. What's more, he said, "the majority — if not all — of the management fees are used directly in the classroom for educational support," including curriculum, teacher training and technology services.

And charter advocates say it's important to keep in mind that companies take a risk when they build a school. If it goes under, or the district takes over, the company can lose everything.

If a district closes a school, taxpayers eat the cost.

• • •

When they first appeared on the Florida landscape nearly 20 years ago, charters were intended to provide options that were lacking in district-run schools.

"They were supposed to do it better than us and cheaper than us," said Jenna Hodgens, director of charter schools for the Hillsborough district. "And I think as time went on, we found that was not a reality."

Laws that called for innovation were softened to ask that the schools use innovative teaching techniques.

In October, three struggling schools came before the Hillsborough School Board, a new requirement under state law. The Pinellas board heard similar presentations from four charter schools.

In both counties, charter operators described a return to mainstream teaching methods. In Hillsborough, they spoke of Saturday academies and summer school, data chats and principal walk-throughs. New Springs Elementary School principal Yunus Aksu said he's introducing Accelerated Reading, something district schools have used for more than a decade.

In Pinellas, officials for Windsor Preparatory Academy told the board they have elected to use the School District's curriculum this year, which prompted board member Carol Cook to ask, "What are you doing differently? … You're using the same curriculum, doing the same testing."

Charters also get significant wiggle room when it comes to where members of their governing boards live. State law does not address the issue, but Hillsborough requires some representation from the community.

The governing board and its hired managers are supposed to have an arm's-length relationship to discourage big charter school management chains from making profit-driven decisions.

Charter Schools USA officials say there are benefits to using professional firms that are versed in best practices and have deep pockets. When one of its Hills­borough schools, Woodmont Charter in Temple Terrace, struggled with low enrollment and an F grade, the company paid for television ads as part of a marketing plan while Woodmont improved to a C. With marketing taken care of, "more resources could be funneled directly back into the classroom from an academic standpoint," Garcia said.

But Hillsborough officials are not satisfied that there is enough distance between the schools' local boards and the corporation. Things got so heated, Superintendent MaryEllen Elia put the schools on notice in July that she might end their contracts. Parents reacted with angry letters to School Board members. Lawyers discussed the issue for months and recently agreed to place the local boards in charge.

Candace Bush of Tampa sends her 6-year-old stepson to Henderson Hammock, one of the three schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

"It's a very tight-knit, family-oriented school," she said. "I like that my son is not a number. The teachers know him by name and they know all the kids by name."

Julie Nipp sends her son to Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High School for similar reasons. Bullying is nonexistent, she said. And students wear uniforms. "I like how they can have expectations," Nipp said. "I like it for the control."

Jennifer Borg in Palm River sent her two daughters to Winthrop Charter School, also run by Charter Schools USA, thinking they'd have "a private school experience at a public school cost."

Although the experience for her older daughter has been mostly positive, she has complained to the school about class size and reading instruction for her younger child. When she called the district's charter office, she said, "they can't do anything for me."

Hodgens, who sometimes fields complaints from charter school parents, said she is struck by their loyalty, even when they are dissatisfied with the schools.

"I can't figure out that phenomenon," she said. "They're so upset, but they're not going to leave the school. They've had five teachers. But they're committed."

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected] or (813) 226-3356. Follow @marlenesokol.

 
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