By the summer of 2016, the school district in rural Jefferson County had deteriorated into one of the worst in Florida.
The Panhandle district of fewer than 800 students had racked up a decade of D’s and F’s under Florida’s high-stakes system for rating academic performance. More than half of its middle/high school students had been held back at least twice. At the hands of a dysfunctional local government, the district had fallen into its second financial emergency in recent years.
Seeing nearby Jefferson County — it’s just east of Tallahassee — as ripe for private intervention, Republican education leaders created and funded Florida’s first all-charter school district.
Now, the only public schools left in Jefferson County are charter schools, funded with taxpayer dollars but operated by a private organization from South Florida instead of a local school board chosen by voters. Leading the effort is Somerset Academy, Inc., a rapidly expanding charter school network that’s affiliated with a politically connected for-profit company in Miami.
The Legislature and state education leaders are using the charter-district’s early indicators of success in Jefferson County to justify a potentially massive statewide expansion of privately run charter schools.
For some students in Jefferson County, the change has been transformational. The new charter schools there are beginning a third school year.
But it’s not as if the district’s problems have disappeared. Somerset Academy Jefferson County is grappling with many of the same challenges that plagued the traditional public schools that preceded them: inadequate resources to address students’ behavioral problems, in some cases occurring alongside disabilities and mental illnesses; stagnant enrollment; low test scores, and an uncertain future.
Florida’s first all-charter school district was engineered by unelected state bureaucrats at then-Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Education, funded by the state Legislature and carried out by a charter school network based in South Florida, nearly 500 miles away.
This “experiment” in rural Jefferson County has been transformational for many students but disastrous for a few. And it’s already changing education in Florida forever.