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Charter schools provide choice, high standards

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by Jim Horne
Sun Sentinel
June 18, 2015

As someone who has spent more than three decades working in both public and private sectors to improve the lives of Florida’s families, it’s impossible for me to sit idly and let rhetoric trump reality in recent Sun Sentinel coverage of the Palm Beach School District’s war on charter schools.

At the heart of the legal battle the district has mounted against one charter school applicant is this notion that charters must prove they are “innovative” and different from traditional district school programs. District officials aren’t necessarily concerned about “innovation,” but instead are threatened by competition from charter schools and the fact that 19,000 students over the past five years have opted to make a choice. This debate is about power and control and the district’s ultimate goal to take parents back who have fled and deny them their rights to choose the best fit for their children.

School districts by nature are conflicted when it comes to approving charter schools because they view new schools — charter schools — as competition and a drain on their finances. That’s why strong charter school laws, such as Florida’s, set provisions that prevent these conflicting interests from getting in the way of what’s best for our children, such as an appeal process to the state Board of Education when a charter school feels it was unfairly denied.

It’s a pretty simple premise. Parent choice in and of itself is one of the most promising and proven innovations in our great state. Further, state law demands public charter schools be held to the same or even higher standards, assessments and grades as district-managed public schools.

If charter schools fail to meet the terms of their agreement, they are closed. When is the last time you heard a district school was closed for poor performance? Never! As the recent coverage in the Sun Sentinel has demonstrated, charters also operate under heightened scrutiny by the media, general public and even our elected officials. Unfortunately for the majority of students in Florida, traditional public schools do not face the same circumstances.

Palm Beach County’s justification for denying South Palm Beach Charter School is that it’s no different or better than what they offer. To demand charters be innovative is to assume that charters and district schools are on equal footing from the beginning. We know that isn’t true. On statewide metrics, charters perform better and provide solid academic results. Forty-one percent of Florida charter schools earn an “A” compared with 34 percent of traditional public schools according to the Florida Department of Education.

Consider that the South Palm Beach Charter School partnered with Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA, which manages 48 schools statewide, 18 of which earn “A” grades. If you take all CSUSA Florida schools as a network, they exceed net proficiency growth rates of every district in which they operate.

Both the legal challenge and the changing of Palm Beach County School Board policy to tighten rules for charters are clear signals the district is looking to protect the status quo. When districts lose students to charter schools, they see it as a loss in funding, despite the fact they’re no longer responsible for educating those students. In fact, districts actually end up with more per student money for the students they have, despite the fact they have lost students to charters due to increasing parent dissatisfaction.

That dissatisfaction is visible in the nearly 100,000 students on charter school wait lists in Florida annually. Most of these students are from low-income families and are desperately seeking a chance to escape their assigned schools, discrediting the notion that charter schools cherry pick students. Parents of all types of children are choosing charters because they offer something new or different, and that in and of itself is “innovation.”

The goal of charter schools isn’t simply just to be different, but to be better. And indeed, the data reveal charter schools get results. If they do not, they are closed. At the end of the day, requiring one to be “innovative” is a subjective excuse that’s a result of fear that when given a choice, parents choose something different than the school assigned by their ZIP code.

Jim Horne is the former Florida commissioner of education and also served in the state Senate. Horne is the chairman of the Florida Charter School Alliance.

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