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Proposed charter schools debated

District officials question what niche the privately managed schools would fill.

It is 200 employees strong, incorporated in the state of Florida and the hopeful steward of a fleet of public schools.

Chancellor Academies, based in Coconut Grove, is among a growing number of for-profit companies across the country vying to land contracts managing charter schools, schools operated with public money but free of many district and state regulations imposed on traditional public schools.

The company has submitted an application to the Hillsborough County School District proposing two schools, both elementaries, both general enrollment, both with student bodies of 600. One school would be in Tampa, the other in Brandon.

Hillsborough, with 14 charter schools, is tied for the most charter schools of any district in the state. It is matched only by Miami-Dade, according to the Department of Education.

"Our hope, our aspiration, is to fill the needs of Hillsborough County," said Wade Dyke, the executive vice president of Chancellor, which operates six charter schools in South Florida.

But district officials are questioning how the privately managed schools will fill a niche not already filled by the district if it serves a traditional student population.

"The legislation says that a charter school should have some innovation that the public schools can replicate," said Superintendent Earl Lennard. "But what is it that they are proposing that is in any way different from what we already have?"

More fundamentally, some education experts worry that allowing corporate control of schools will mean decisions based on finances rather than academics.

"A valid concern is whether companies will be driven to increase profits at the price of instruction at charter schools," said Darrel Drury, the director of policy research at the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. The association issued a report this year critical of charter schools.

But other experts say privately managed charter schools are akin to the dozens of contractors that school districts use for everything from chalk to textbooks.

"This certainly involves handing over more responsibility, but a district should be asking the same sorts of questions that it would with any other commitment of resources," said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and a drafter of the nation's first charter school law.

Figures documenting the number of for-profit companies running charter schools in the country are hard to come by. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee estimate that the number of privately operated charter schools jumped from 230 in the 1998-99 school year to 285 in 1999-2000.

"As more states pass charter school laws, we are going to see more privately managed public schools," said Jennifer Morales, a researcher at the university's Center for Education Research, Analysis and Innovation.

This month, Edison Schools Inc., one of the largest private operators of public schools in the country, was selected to run five of New York City's worst-performing schools, provided that more than 50 percent of the parents at each school approve of the change.

In Florida, the Department of Education counts 152 charter schools in the state but does not keep tabs on how many are run by private entities.

Morales said thorough analyses of performances of charter schools run by private companies are not yet available. Part of the difficulty, she said, is that states lack the means to assess so many schools. But another difficulty lies in the speed with which some schools close.

A charter school in Austin, Texas, run by Charter School Administrative Services of Southfield, Mich., closed overnight last December after steep enrollment drops. Families were left scrambling to find new schools.

"The fact that Chancellor wants to open up a very-high-enrollment school raises some concerns," Morales said of Chancellor's planned 600-student schools in Hillsborough. "The business model demands economy of scale in that the companies have to have a certain number of students to keep it cost-effective. You don't want to employ a janitor for 30 kids."

But Dyke, the Chancellor official, said enrollment dips would not derail his company's charter schools because the company has resources to cushion such a blow.

Profit for Chancellor, like other for-profit companies running charter schools, relies on student enrollment. In return for managing the school _ providing teachers, curriculum, janitorial staff and administration, among other necessities _ the company takes a percentage of the money the school receives from the state. The state funds are based on the number of students enrolled in the school.

Dyke said Chancellor on average funnels 88 percent of state funding to the charter schools and keeps 12 percent for its costs.

Chancellor Academies had proposed building the two charter elementary schools in Pinellas County but withdrew its application in November before the School Board could vote on it. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had objected to the schools, claiming they did not make diversity a goal in student population or staff.

Lennard, the Hillsborough superintendent, said he also was concerned about how Charter Academies' plans would mesh with the district's new desegregation plan. Approved by the School Board in November, the plan gives parents greater school choice with the hope that magnet programs and other enticements will attract suburban students to city schools, smoothing racial imbalances.

Chancellor would not be the first private company to operate a charter school in Hillsborough. Charlene Pirko, who oversees the county's 14 charter schools, said Richard Milburn High School will be run by a private company when it opens in the fall to make 15.

But Milburn will serve a special population _ at-risk students _ and will have only 100 students.

Ultimately, some experts said, the key question to ask in deciding whether to allow private companies to run charter schools is: Do they serve as templates of innovation and change that can be replicated in traditional schools?

Some say if private companies are proprietary, as custom dictates, the sharing will never happen.

"Private management companies tend to be interested in keeping their own ideas to themselves," said Tom Good, a professor at the University of Arizona and a critic of charter schools. "So we might see those innovative ideas stay in the company."

Dyke disagreed. "It is our intention to be good partners with Hillsborough County, and we are prepared to be a model for other schools and share not only what is required of us, but to try to work with them to find better ways of doing things."

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