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What Hillsborough parents need to know as charter schools grow

Recently released numbers show continued gains for the privately operated public schools. What’s ahead?
Principal Miriam Tirado receives a high five from one of her kindergarteners at the conclusion of a P.E. class on April 13, 2021, at Henderson Hammock Charter School in Tampa.
Principal Miriam Tirado receives a high five from one of her kindergarteners at the conclusion of a P.E. class on April 13, 2021, at Henderson Hammock Charter School in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 18|Updated Oct. 18

The 2022-23 academic year in Hillsborough County has started like so many before, with charter schools continuing their steady growth and traditional public schools losing ground.

The numbers are striking.

Over the last five years in the county, enrollment in charters has risen by more than 15,000 students while district-run schools lost more than 7,500.

Related: For parents researching a charter school, here’s how to do it

Hillsborough is seeing the result of a slow but steady shift that began more than two decades ago in Florida, fueling education policy debates ever since. Charters, which are publicly funded but privately operated, have always been controversial.

So why are Hillsborough families opting for them in larger numbers? How good is the education at charters? And what should parents consider before choosing one? Here are some questions and answers about a phenomenon that continues to change the face of public schools.

How popular are charter schools in Hillsborough County, and why does that matter?

A decade ago, about 6% of public school students in the county attended charters. The number has inched up each year and is now nearly 17%, or close to 37,000 students in 58 schools.

Charters are more prevalent in Hillsborough than in most other Florida districts. Statewide, charters make up 13% of public school enrollment. In Pinellas County schools, it’s 7% and in Pasco County it’s 9%.

If charters continue to grow at the current rate in Hillsborough, they could make up 30% or 40% of the district’s enrollment in the next decade.

A change of that magnitude can’t help but affect the district’s traditional schools. It already has.

Charter proponents say their schools provide competition, pushing regular public schools to improve. But when families leave traditional public schools to attend charters, state funding goes with them. This year, that adds up to more than $300 million in funds that no longer flow to the Hillsborough school system.

It’s one of several factors contributing to the district’s financial woes.

Also gone in many instances are the intangibles that make a school more successful — students with strong family support and parents who get involved. As the exodus compounds year after year, students at the most affected district schools can start to feel abandoned.

Why are charter schools controversial?

Because the debate over their existence centers around two distinct visions for public education — one that says funding and decisions belong strictly in the public realm and another that seeks to involve the private sector and market forces.

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Critics of Florida’s Republican-dominated government say its support of charter schools is really an attempt to privatize public education. Proponents say the schools provide a much-needed choice for families, and that competition from charters prods traditional public schools to be better.

Charters also get criticized for their demographic makeup.

Racial composition varies greatly at charter schools, and often they are very diverse. However, many of them are more economically segregated than regular public schools.

School district reports from 2020-21 show that 60% of students at the regular schools were economically disadvantaged. Among charter schools, that number was 42%.

On average, charter school students come from families with more wealth and privilege. That’s no surprise, as most charter schools require parents to provide transportation and some expect parent service hours as well.

Do charters follow the same rules as other Florida schools?

Charter schools give the same state skills tests as district-run schools. And in most cases, the teachers must be certified.

An exception to the certification requirement occurs at “schools of hope,” which have a special designation that allows the state to approve them instead of local school boards. The Texas-based IDEA organization operates two schools of hope in Hillsborough.

SouthShore Charter Academy student Raquel Harris dries her hands after using the bully-free restroom on April 13 at the school in Riverview.
SouthShore Charter Academy student Raquel Harris dries her hands after using the bully-free restroom on April 13 at the school in Riverview. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

How good are charter school teachers?

Evaluating teachers is a notoriously difficult and subjective task, but pay and experience are barometers.

On average, charter school teachers are newer to their work and are paid less. Even after the state mandated a $47,500 minimum salary for classroom teachers last year, records show the average salary for a charter school teacher in Hillsborough County was about $7,500 lower than the average district teacher’s salary.

There are exceptions. Terrace Community Middle School in Thonotosassa, now in its 25th year, was paying its teachers an average of $60,000, according to forms submitted to the state. On the other end of the scale, the new schools run by the IDEA organization reported paying every teacher $47,500.

The differences in pay are likely tied to experience as most charters are newer compared to district schools.

The National Center for Education Statistics reported in 2020 that 41% of district-employed teachers had 10 to 20 years on the job, while 31% of charter school teachers had that much experience.

Is the exodus to charter schools happening in certain neighborhoods, or everywhere?

Charters aren’t much of a factor in relatively affluent South Tampa, which generally supports its neighborhood public schools. And South Tampa families often send their kids to private schools if they want an option. Families in Westchase and FishHawk Creek appear similarly happy with their public schools.

In the urban core, families dissatisfied with their neighborhood schools sometimes choose charters. But they just as often send their children to magnet schools, which are located in urban areas by design.

The biggest exodus is in inner-ring suburbs such as Town ‘N Country and in the Riverview-to-Ruskin corridor.

“I did my research on public schools and on charter schools,” said Riverview parent Kate Rade, who sends her son to SouthShore Charter Academy. “The public schools in Florida are not the strongest, unless you live in certain neighborhoods. But we can’t afford a certain neighborhood. We are middle class.”

Riverview might be considered ground zero for charters. Some of the numbers are astonishing.

District-run Eisenhower Middle School on Big Bend Road lost 1,177 students to charter schools last year, and Sessums Elementary lost 505.

In Ruskin, Shields Middle School lost 957 students to charters.

Eighth grade students participate in a spectral light analysis lab while attending Ted Steinmetz’ Physical Science class on April 19 at Terrace Community Middle School in Tampa.
Eighth grade students participate in a spectral light analysis lab while attending Ted Steinmetz’ Physical Science class on April 19 at Terrace Community Middle School in Tampa. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Charters were set up by law to be innovators that would lift performance at all schools. Did that happen?

Critics say no. But in visits to charter and traditional schools, the Tampa Bay Times has seen much sharing of ideas.

Charter operators tout innovations such as data rooms, where children can become familiar with their test scores, and hand-held digital devices that allow teachers to monitor their students’ work in real time. But in recent years, these methods have also been introduced in district schools, especially those that are struggling to raise their student test scores and state grades.

Charters and traditional public schools still posture like competitors. But a lot of collaboration happens behind the scenes.

What are some examples of innovation at charters?

Henderson Hammock, a large charter school in the Citrus Park area, leaped into action last year when student math scores were lagging and purchased a special curriculum that had been proven to work elsewhere. They finished the year with 55% of students passing the state test, up from 47% in 2021.

A similar change in the regular public schools likely would have required a lengthy approval process.

Dr. Kiran Patel High School in Thonotosassa opened with a “power hour” at lunch, where students could seek help if they were struggling with a subject. Then they fine-tuned that concept and changed it to a 45-minute session called Focus 45 that includes all students. Patel also tests its incoming freshmen over the summer and uses those results to plan the coming year.

“The population guides the decisions you are making,” said Patel principal Marlee Strawn.

Is it true that my child will be safer in a charter school than in a district-run school?

Charter schools are perceived to be places where children will not be bullied or fall under a bad influence from other students. Studies show that issues of safety and better student conduct are one of the chief attractions of charter schools.

But they do not always live up to that reputation.

Jenn Budd, a parent in Southeast Hillsborough, said she had negative experiences with three charter schools. One was especially ugly, although she withheld the details to protect the students’ privacy.

“I thought the discipline, the accountability, that children’s parents who made the attempt to enroll them and put them in the lottery meant that they were more involved in their children’s lives,” Budd said.

She said she now realizes, “there’s no guarantee. Even when you hear wonderful things and you think kids will be held to a higher standard behaviorally, academically, because it’s a charter, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so.”

How do I know how safe a charter school is?

The state collects numbers on that. Like most data, it isn’t perfect. But the public can look up any school on the state’s School Environmental Safety Incident Reporting list, which logged 349 disciplinary incidents at Hillsborough’s 54 charter schools in 2020-21.

Combined, there were 100 physical attacks, 91 fights, 30 threats or instances of intimidation, 19 cases of bullying, 16 cases of drug use, 16 reports of weapons possession and 10 sex offenses.

That compares favorably to regular district schools.

On average, charters see less than a third the number of disciplinary incidents that regular public schools report. But the numbers also are proof that charters are not immune from student misconduct that can harm a child.

SouthShore Charter Academy in Riverview reported 50 incidents in 2020-21, more than any other charter school in the county. According to principal Amy Sams, though, that’s more attributable to the school’s philosophy than student behavior.

“In my school, we are by the book,” Sams said. “I try to really hold my students accountable. And I do think, in my opinion, that we are stricter than other schools.”

Students transition to traditional classes after attending Focus 45 sessions on April 19 at Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School, a tuition-free public charter school in Tampa. The sessions provide students opportunities to receive one-on-one teacher support for 45 minutes four days each week.
Students transition to traditional classes after attending Focus 45 sessions on April 19 at Dr. Kiran C. Patel High School, a tuition-free public charter school in Tampa. The sessions provide students opportunities to receive one-on-one teacher support for 45 minutes four days each week. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

What can families do when something goes wrong at a charter school?

Often they write letters to the school district, and the Times reviewed several dozen. The letters described bullying, favoritism, inadequate services for learning-disabled children and arguments about whether students should have to wear masks to protect against COVID-19.

The district, however, cannot do much with these complaints. The better course for parents is to seek recourse through the charter school administration or its governing board.

We hear about families flocking to charter schools. Do they also leave them?

They do, but not in huge numbers.

During the 2021-22 academic year, about 1,200 students left charters for traditional district schools. That’s about 3.5% of the charter student body.

Students leave for a lot of reasons, the principals said. Parents might get tired of battling traffic every morning to drive their kids to school each day on the way to their own jobs. Children might buckle under the strict rules of conduct.

And charter school parents sometimes have their own high standards.

“Some parents might say, ‘I don’t want them to take Spanish, I want them to take French,’” said Miriam Tirado, the principal at Henderson Hammock Charter School. “Sometimes it’s because of siblings. Sometimes it’s just a disagreement or a misunderstanding. Sometimes they want something right now, or they want us to do something a certain way.”

What are the best ways to check out a charter school?

“Definitely, a school tour is where you start because you can get a feel for so much,” said Sams, the SouthShore principal.

“But a school website is also very revealing to me. You will see curriculum, newsletters, teachers, and you’ll get a sense of the diversity of staff or the age of staff.”

Sams said to consider it a red flag “if the website is not updated, as it is with any company. I even Googled churches when I moved here.”

Parents should ask about policies on behavior, said Tahvia Shaw, the principal at Terrace Community Middle. “Every school has bullying because kids are mean,” she said. “It’s just a matter of how the school responds to that. So you want to ask them, how do they deal with this?”

Both principals said it’s also important to consider clubs and sports, and a child’s strengths and weaknesses.

“I would look at what does your student need, what does the school have to offer,” Sams said. “Talk to the individual teachers. Just because a school has an A or a B doesn’t mean every student in the school is making an A or a B.”

Also helpful are state and public records, some of which were used in the chart below:

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