Column: Charter schools fail to boost achievement

Published April 1, 2014

Most Florida taxpayers are surprised to learn that charter schools are part of the public school system and are paid for by taxpayer dollars. Yet, in a yearlong study, the League of Women Voters of Florida has found that charter schools do not improve student achievement.

Moreover, a lawsuit filed by Southern Legal Counsel contends that adding charter schools as an option does not fulfill the state's constitutional mandate for a uniform, high-quality system of public education for all children.

Charter schools in Florida were authorized by the Legislature in 1996. In 2012-13, charters enrolled 203,000 students in 578 charter schools in 46 Florida counties. Hillsborough County has 42 charter schools, with an enrollment of approximately 14,000 students, or 7 percent of the total school population.

In Hillsborough, three charter schools that have opened since 2011 are owned by Charter Schools USA, a for-profit corporation, and these three alone enroll more than 20 percent of all charter students. In 2011, Woodmont Charter School, one of these three, expended 44 percent of its total revenue on instruction and 42 percent on management fees and leases.

By contrast, traditional Hillsborough County schools spend at least 86 percent of revenue on instruction. Woodmont had FCAT scores of D for 2012 and F for 2013, and this is not unusual, since charter schools composed 50 percent of all F-rated Florida schools in 2011. Meanwhile, the six traditional public elementary schools and one middle school within 1 mile of Woodmont all have higher FCAT scores.

Sadly, the traditional public schools are losing students, and thus public dollars, to the "choice" school that advertises a superior alternative. Neither the charter nor traditional public school students are benefiting, creating a lose/lose scenario.

While educational needs require large expenditures, state revenue is limited. In fact, the Florida K-12 budget for education is less than it was in 2009. Many legislators believed that expanding the use of public funds for charter schools would energize education. The resulting policy reduced regulations for charter schools and diverted funds from traditional schools.

For example, Public Education Capital Outlay funds, used to build and maintain public school and university buildings, are being diverted away from traditional public schools and to charters. In 2012, $36 million of state PECO funds were allocated to charter schools; in 2013 it was $91 million of a $97 million total allocation. These funds are spent by the charter schools, often by for-profit management and real estate development companies that are hired to build and staff the charter schools. Should the charters close, these costly assets remain with the for-profit company and are lost to the public.

Another area where the distinction between public and private is blurred for the benefit of for-profits is in the issuing of bonds. Although Florida law prohibits charter schools from issuing bonds, Charter School USA has found a way.

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When naming Jon Hage, CEO of Charter USA, as Floridian of the Year, Florida Trend in December 2012 contended that Charter School USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. "It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year, Hage says. … The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the nonprofit founding boards that oversee the schools."

The performance record to date for charter schools in Hillsborough County is much like that of traditional public schools — some are excellent, like Learning Gate and Pepin Academies. Some have failed to meet state standards like the aforementioned Woodmont. Many have closed for a variety of reasons; 92 have been granted charters in Hillsborough County since the law was passed in 1996, but there are only 42 currently operating. Statewide, the closure rate of charters is 20 percent, one of the highest rates in the country.

A study done each year since 2009 by Stanford University has shown that there is little difference in the academic performance of students attending charter schools versus traditional public schools, except for a slightly higher performance in reading for African-American children from poor communities. Both systems have students who do well and those who do not.

Taxpayers, the public, educators and legislators need to focus on how education dollars are spent. How should our K-12 budget be spent to ensure that all students have the right to learn and the best teachers to help them? The education of all our children is critically important for Florida's economic future.

Shirley Arcuri is president of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County. She wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.