The abbreviated opening of a new St. Petersburg charter school underscores that when Florida's experiment with school choice fails, it's traditional public schools that fill the gap. The Pinellas County school system is reconsidering the language in its charter school contracts in hopes of preventing such future surprises. But state lawmakers, who have shortchanged traditional public schools to favor privately run and less-regulated charter schools, also should commit to fully invest in traditional public schools.
The East Windsor Middle Academy reportedly contacted dozens of families last Wednesday evening by email to inform them it would not be able to accommodate their middle school student when classes started Monday because its new facility would not be finished. As the Tampa Bay Times reported, the school's backup location, a former PACE Center for Girls building in Pinellas Park, has zoning limits that cap the location to 65 students — far less than the 242 the charter school had told the district it planned to serve in grades 6-8. So the school held an unannounced "second lottery" to cut its list of enrollees.
Exactly how many families were disappointed is unknown. East Windsor's principal isn't returning media calls and apparently doesn't have to report such information to the school district. The silence is a reminder that less regulation at charter schools also can mean less accountability.
Now Pinellas County school officials, who scrambled last week to place the disappointed students, say they will be reviewing the district's contract with charter schools to see how to avoid future calamities. Requiring new charters to prove their readiness and communication with families sooner, rather than later, would be a good place to start.
Charter schools, when operated well, are an asset for Florida's education system. Several operate well in the Tampa Bay region. But many also fail. Just this year, the Pinellas school district took over Gulf Coast Academy, an alternative charter high school that graduated just 7 percent of its students. Imagine Middle School closed just a year after its elementary program had closed. Both Imagine programs had fared poorly on state assessments.
Yet in Tallahassee the deck remains stacked in charters' favor. For three of the last four years, the Republican-led Legislature funded construction only for charter schools. And even this year, charter schools serving an estimated 230,000 students will split $75 million in construction funds while Florida's 67 school districts will share just $50 million. Tallahassee is gambling on the experiment but failing simultaneously to invest in the overall system that serves the vast majority of students — including those students whom charter schools abandon.