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Hillsborough’s charter school growth comes at a rough time, officials say

The new schools are competing with traditional public schools as the district is cutting staff and programs.
Dakeyan "Dre" Graham was a music educator and Florida teacher of the year when he worked for the Hillsborough County school district. Now he leads the Independent Education & Parental Choice office for the Florida Department of Education.
Dakeyan "Dre" Graham was a music educator and Florida teacher of the year when he worked for the Hillsborough County school district. Now he leads the Independent Education & Parental Choice office for the Florida Department of Education. [ JONES, OCTAVIO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Apr. 13
Updated Apr. 14

School Board members in Hillsborough County had a chance Tuesday to question state and charter school leaders as they brace for even more migration away from district-run schools.

They already knew many of the answers: Local boards are virtually powerless under state law to say no to a “school of hope” provider such as IDEA, a Texas-based organization that is launching three K-12 schools in Hillsborough.

Should the school district fail to sign contracts with these state-approved providers, it stands to lose millions because the state can then reduce the money the district gets for administrative expenses.

The schools of hope, allowed under a relatively new law that seeks to create alternatives to long-struggling schools, will join about 50 existing charters that now serve close to 15 percent of Hillsborough’s public school students. They receive their funding from the state, which means roughly $250 million leaves the district budget each year to serve these students.

Representing the Florida Department of Education at a School Board workshop Tuesday was Dakeyan “Dre” Graham, a former Hillsborough and state Teacher of the Year and now executive director of the state agency’s office of school choice.

“When we’re talking about schools of hope,” he said, “obviously this is geared towards those students in areas of generationally impoverished and under-served communities.”

He then took the group through a series of sobering statistics about Hillsborough’s D- and F-rated schools.

The 39 that the state considers “persistently low performing,” and therefore a target market for schools of hope, represent 13 percent of district schools. That number compares with 1 percent in Miami-Dade, 4 percent in Broward and 5 percent in Orange County.

He described one group of nine schools where fewer than 30 percent of students are up to speed for their grade level in reading and math. “That’s unacceptable,” Graham said.

Superintendent Addison Davis pushed back briefly against Graham’s remarks, noting that the district steers additional resources to struggling schools under what is now called the “Transformation” network.

But the consensus among board members and staff was that charter schools are expanding at a time when the district is especially vulnerable.

Staffing cuts, now in place because of years of excessive spending, mean some families will see their schools lose favorite teachers and courses that held their interest. Those losses could make the charter schools seem more attractive.

The pandemic, meanwhile, has created challenges for principals who might wish to market their schools.

“We’ve got to continue to tell our story,” Davis said. “I know right now we are going through some really trying times.” But “we still have some great initiatives and great programs.”

Member Jessica Vaughn, one of the board’s most vocal critics of charter schools, argued that, rather than offering innovative teaching methods to families who can “navigate a lottery” to attend the charter schools, the state should fund districts at a level that allows high quality at district-run schools as well.

Nadia Combs, another board member who has focused on the issue, grilled IDEA Vice President of Advancement Adam Miller about recent scandals concerning executive salaries and luxury travel in the organization.

Miller said they have resolved those issues with new leadership. “We’re not perfect,” he said. “But over the last 20 years we’ve been one of the highest performing school districts in the country.”