Since 1996, when they were first allowed, seven charter schools have opened in Pasco County.
Three have already been shut down.
The other four, as measured by the latest school grades, are doing great — three A schools and one B school.
These results, a researcher says, show the essential difference between traditional public schools and charters, which are publicly funded but independently run.
There are good charter schools and bad ones, said Julie Kowal of Public Impact, a North Carolina education think tank, just like there are good and bad mainstream schools.
The difference, she said, is that while strong charter schools get good grades and long waiting lists, the failed ones actually close.
"They at least are held accountable," said Kowal.
"District schools should be held to the same standard,'' said Kowal, who has studied Florida's charter system and found it to be one of the most open places to operate this alternative type of school. "It would make more sense if failure were failure across the board."
Instead, Pasco — like most school other districts — gives its most troubled traditional schools repeated chances to try again. Even schools required to "restructure" under federal law aren't pressed to make major overhauls and definitely are not shuttered. The primary changes for Cox Elementary, which has earned a D six of the past 10 years, for instance, are increased staff training and parental involvement.
(To be fair, Pasco has never had an F school. Elsewhere, though, it is almost unheard of for a public school to be shut down for poor performance. And charter schools have certain advantages over traditional schools. For instance, parents who select charters tend to be highly motivated and push their children to excel. Cox, by contrast, went nine years without a PTA. )
Yet it is charter schools that often get a bad press, and not without reason.
In Pasco, their problems ranged from the criminal (Deerwood Academy) to the academic (Richard Milburn Academy) to the financial (Language Academy).
But state Rep. John Legg, founder of the A-rated Dayspring Academy, said a key strength of the charter school system is this level of accountability. That's what forces charter operators to continually prove to parents that it's worth their while to choose a charter school over their regular neighborhood school.
All four of Pasco's remaining charters have proven consistently successful when measured by the state's accountability standards. In addition to their strong grades, two of the four made "adequate yearly progress" as defined in federal law, compared to just five of the county's 68 traditional schools.
The driving force, charter leaders contend, is their ability to provide something that mainstream schools can't.
They have individual school boards rather than large bureaucracies. They must meet state standards but have more flexibility to deal with the myriad state rules governing education. They often target their curriculum more narrowly than the regular county schools, and serve a smaller numbers of students.
"It gives us the autonomy to set ourselves, at least perception-wise with the public, as different," said Manuel Goncalves, head of school for the B-rated Athenian Academy, which provides all students Spanish and Greek language lessons.
Michael Rom, director of A-rated Academy at the Farm, agreed that the ability to change direction based upon local input and without having to go through a large district bureaucracy offers charter schools the chance to succeed where mainstream schools might struggle.
"The school district, from my perspective, is doing a great job of teaching to the norm, to a broad concept," Legg said. "Most kids don't fit in that broad concept perfectly. … Charter schools can fill that void that a traditional school can't fit."
Dayspring Academy began because the founders thought the district schools didn't hold students to high enough academic standards. It pushes students with a more advanced curriculum, tied in many ways to the arts. Students are expected to complete at least an hour of homework nightly and parents must volunteer 15 hours a year to the school.
Elementary director Gayle Barr, who previously taught at Fox Hollow Elementary, said successful charter schools are able to stimulate students, parents and educators by giving them more say in how the school is run. Dayspring has been rated an A since opening in 2000.
Fran McCrimmon, principal of Chester Taylor Elementary before becoming Academy at the Farm's lead teacher, shared that perspective. At the smaller school, which has a nationally recognized special education inclusion program, parents often express surprise at how the teachers can make things happen.
"We know what's best for kids," McCrimmon said. "We would like to do it every day. In other schools, they also would like to do it, but they can't always."
Academy at the Farm lets the teaching staff help select any new teachers for the school. It offers daily computer lab for the youngest students, separate reading and writing classes for all three middle school years and no electives, so the students focus on academics. It has earned an A grade four of the five years it has been rated since opening in 2002.
Athenian Academy principal Goncalves credits other aspects of his school, including its stress on discipline, as working hand-in-hand with the academic program for overall strong performance.
"The main thing is being small," he said. "It allows us to communicate more effectively and also see the problems soon enough to deal with them."
Officials from the Countrywide Montessori Academy, another A-rated charter school, could not be reached for comment.
Because of the motivation for their creation, charter schools often get treated as competition with the traditional schools. But ideally, said Kowal of Public Impact, the relationship would be more friendly and interactive as educators look for the best way to reach students and meet their needs.
Pasco leaders said that despite some of the political fights they have over money and related matters, they hope to see the systems work more closely together in that vein.
"I think that the real question for our district is to determine why many parents would want to leave a public school and enroll in a charter school, and then see if there's anything our district can do to improve," School Board member Allen Altman said. "I don't see them as an adversary. … I think we ought to partner with them."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.