Charter school enrollment sees largest single-year increase nationwide, as Florida leads the way

By ALLISON ROSS Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Updated: 9:15 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011
Posted: 5:35 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011

It’s not only in Palm Beach County that the charter school movement is on an upswing.

Thanks to growing parent interest and state laws encouraging charter school expansion, the number of students attending public charter schools nationwide has surpassed 2 million, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools reported today.

The growth marks the largest single-year increase in charter school enrollment since charter schools first came on the scene two decades ago.

Florida was one of the states leading the nation in charter school enrollment growth, adding about 23,500 new charter school students this year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said. That’s a more than 15 percent increase from the previous year’s charter school enrollment in Florida, according to the Alliance’s data.

“Parents in Florida have, in the last five years, become great consumers of education,” said Cheri Shannon, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Charter School Alliance.

Take, for instance, the case of the suburban Boynton Beach parents who have been pushing to build a charter school in their community, said Lynn Norman-Teck, director of communications for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. “Parents are very aware of the education options. They’re education consumers now.”

Charter schools are public schools that use government money but are run by independent governing boards. The idea behind them is to allow them to innovate with ideas to improve academic performance; to that end, they’ve been given more freedom to operate.

In Florida, charter schools do have to adhere to state accountability measures – such as having all their students take the FCAT and employing state-certified teachers – but are exempt from a majority of the state’s school laws.

They have more flexibility with their personnel, including salaries, benefits and rules on hiring and firing. They can change the length of the school day or year, create their own curricula and have less restrictive building requirements and looser restrictions on class sizes.

The Palm Beach County School District this year reported a higher-than-expected enrollment growth at its charter schools, while Miami-Dade and Broward counties reported that student enrollment at its traditional public schools declined while enrollment in charter schools increased.

Part of the growth of charter schools in recent years can be attributed to charter school proponents in state and national government.

In the past three years, several states have implemented or changed laws to encourage the growth or expansion of charter schools. The Obama administration also championed high-quality charter schools with its Race to the Top initiative, emphasizing support for charter schools as a major factor in whether states would receive part of the $4.35 billion fund.

Florida’s Gov. Rick Scott and other state politicians have also been publicly embracing charter schools.

In June, Scott signed a bill allowing existing “high-performing” charter schools that meet certain standards to open additional branches or up their enrollment without getting the local school board’s approval.

Also this year, the state’s charter schools received all of the $55 million in Public Education Capital Outlay (PECO) funds for maintenance and construction. For the first time ever, the state’s traditional public schools got none of that money.

Other legislation in favor of charter schools is expected to come up this legislative session, including a bill that would allow charter schools to offer adult education classes.

“The legislature is making it easy for charter schools to apply,” said Janice Cover, Palm Beach County School District’s area superintendent for quality assurance, which oversees the district’s charter schools department. “There is a movement for charter schools to be opened. Charter schools are the newest trend.”

Florida, with 520 charter schools, has the third-most of any state in the nation, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. But the same report noted that Florida was also among the top for the number of charter schools closures, with 18 of its schools shutting its doors this year.

“If they’re not performing, if they’re not fiscally sound, if they don’t have the enrollment numbers, they shouldn’t stay open,” Shannon said.

Shannon said she was surprised by the number of charter school applications that have been filed in Florida this year. In Palm Beach County alone, 36 applications for charter schools were filed by this year’s August deadline.

“Some of (the charter schools that are applying to open this year) will never open, some should never open, others should open and will serve kids well,” Shannon said of Florida’s charter school applicants. “Florida charter school law really allows for the opportunity for expansion. … But on the other end of the spectrum, we have to have accountability.”

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