The Hillsborough County School Board took a gamble last week in rejecting a series of charter schools, which after decades of Republican control in Florida, are firmly baked into the state’s educational landscape. But it appears that in at least several cases, the School Board was acting in its own interests, not those of students and parents. Pushing back on charters is fine — but it needs to happen at the right place and for the right reasons.
The board considered 12 applications last week to open or renew contracts for charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently managed. Of those 12, the board accepted the recommendations of its staff to deny two charters and approve four, one with modifications. The remaining six were denied despite staff’s recommendation for approval. While the move appeared sweeping, and was a sharp departure from past practice, the reasons for each denial varied — a critical point as the district looks to defend what could be numerous appeals.
The board, for example, overwhelmingly rejected a five-year extension for Pivot Charter, a grade 6-12 school in Riverview, which earned a C grade from the state for the three most recent years. Board members expressed concern over its finances and academic performance. The board also rejected a five-year extension for SouthShore Charter Academy, a K-8 school in Riverview. Though a B-rated school, board members cited a range of issues, from high teacher turnover to gaps in serving special-needs students.
But money seemed to be the major motivator in other cases. Hillsborough already loses more than $250 million a year in state funding that follows the more than 30,000 students who opt for charters — a bone of contention that’s been central for months as the district has worked to stabilize its finances and avoid being placed under state receivership.
The board narrowly rejected a bid to renew and consolidate Kid’s Community College into a K-12 school in south county, after board members raised questions about administrative fees and grants. The charter’s K-8 school is A-rated, outperforming the two district-run schools in the area, but board members focused on the high school’s C-rating, which equals or lags two local, district-run schools. “Why are we robbing Peter, the public schools, to pay Paul, when Paul is not the most optimal situation?,” asked School Board Chairwoman Lynn Gray.
Likewise, the board rejected Mater Academy Hills, which proposed opening in east Hillsborough as a K-3 school in 2022, eventually growing to K-5. Mater Academy currently operates 30 charters in Miami-Dade and Osceola counties, and is certified by Florida as a high-performing charter school system. Hillsborough Superintendent Addison Davis said he found “no weaknesses” in the application. Yet board members raised concerns about the charter’s management. Gray wondered why charters are needed when area schools were “very satisfactory or above-average.” For the record, half of the 16 district-run elementary schools in the area are rated C or D. By contrast, eight of Mater’s nine elementary schools in Florida are rated A or B.
Elected school boards have the authority to reject charter applications, as they should. But the grounds are prescribed narrowly under Florida law. Most involve academic performance or the budget. It doesn’t matter whether charters poach students or money from a school district. Or that districts have mediocre schools nearby already.
State education commissioner Richard Corcoran overplayed his authority this week by sending a letter to Hillsborough calling on the district to reconsider its decision or to provide him “with every factual and legal justification” for the nonrenewal of four charter schools. As the commissioner knows, Florida law already requires districts to inform the state and applicants alike if a charter is denied, and Hillsborough is following that process, which could mark the start of any appeal. Threatening Hillsborough with “serious consequences,” including financial penalties, for its decision makes a folly of state law, which requires “a fair and impartial review of appeals.” It’s Corcoran, after all, who appoints the board that hears those appeals.
The Hillsborough School District faces public and financial pressure to crack down on charters and to better compete with them. But much of that requires changing state law, which means the battle is in Tallahassee, not merely with individual charter applications. And dampening the charter market also requires offering superior educational choices. Just saying no, because it doesn’t work for the bureaucracy, is a loser — legally, practically and politically.
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