Remedial lessons on charter school expansion in Florida

Published Feb. 24, 2013

Theoretically, the role of a state legislator is simple.

You are in Tallahassee to look out for the people back home. Special interest groups, lobbyists, political parties? In a perfect world, that's just drama and noise.

And yet here we are, just about a week before the Legislature is in session, and already lawmakers are climbing back in the sack with charter school business interests.

We are told we need more charter schools. We need to make it easier to create charter schools. We need to throw more state money at charter schools.

Yet no one is bothering to explain why.

And, even worse, no one in Tallahassee seems concerned about the amount of taxpayer dollars being taken out of public schools and put in the pockets of for-profit charters.

If someone really wanted to explore the issue of charter schools, a legislator might start asking a few basic questions, such as:

1. If a majority of parents are on board with this rapid expansion, why are so many charter schools closing due to low enrollment?

2. If charters are such a wonderful alternative, why were they four times more likely to receive an F in the statewide grading system last year?

3. If accountability is important, why are the rules so lax that the salary of a charter school's principal can be double the size of the school's entire education budget?

Now, before I go on, let me offer a disclaimer:

Charter schools are a wonderful idea.

There are charters that offer advanced and specialized courses. There are charters with innovative learning plans. There are charters that cater to students with special needs.

And just as charters are more likely to earn F's than public schools, they often have a higher percentage of A's than those traditional schools.

So there is a place in the world – and in Florida – for charter schools.

The problem is our Legislature and Board of Education leaders have abdicated authority, and cash, to charter school businesses with virtually no accountability.

Think I'm exaggerating?

Let's consider some issues.

The most popular argument for charter schools is that parents deserve a choice in their child's education. In fact, officials say, parents are demanding a choice.

Yet national studies show that roughly 1 out of every 8 charter schools eventually goes out of business. In Florida, according to state records, the rate is 1 out of every 4.

And still we're clamoring for more?

This is important because every failure weakens the public school system. Millions of dollars of public education funds are forever lost when charters go belly up, not to mention the disruption for students. Last fall, three charters in Broward County closed without notice in the middle of the year, leaving hundreds of families scrambling.

So why do we have double the national rate of closures in Florida?

A good guess might be the zeal with which our state is promoting charters, combined with Florida's ludicrous policy of less-oversight-is-better.

In 2007, after a rash of charter scandals, legislators swore they were going to keep a closer eye on the business. Six years later, accountability is still a rumor.

In one outrageous example of abuse, a charter school in Orange County was recently closed due to poor academic performance.

In the wake of the closure, the Orlando Sentinel discovered the principal had been drawing a salary of more than $300,000 a year, and was given an extra $519,000 on her way out the door.

This principal, by the way, was not exactly a hot commodity in the education world when she was hired. She was previously working as a carpet saleswoman, the Sentinel reported, and had no experience as a principal. Yet last year her salary was larger than the county superintendent overseeing nearly 300 schools.

Her husband was also paid $460,000 over the previous five years for "management services,'' and two board members also picked up roughly $50,000 for clerical work.

Now did I mention this was taxpayer money?

Some might say this was an extreme case, and that would be true. But it is also far from isolated. You might recall the charter school that closed in Clearwater last year after paying hefty sums to its for-profit management team instead of buying basic school supplies.

In the past, charters have closed after it was discovered officials were charging the school for hotel stays, meals and, in one case, a new pickup truck.

Once again, this is not an attempt to paint charters as the enemy.

The point is that our politicians are following the direction of lobbyists and advocates instead of following the money.

So before we start pushing for new charters, how about better protecting the ones we already have?