South Florida

Parental demand fuels charter schools’ growth in Broward Board pursuing options to keep students in traditional schools

By Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel
6:19 PM EST, November 24, 2011

Given a choice, Broward County parents are increasingly turning to charter schools for public education.

An enrollment record of nearly 30,000 students this year surely will be smashed in August, along with the possible opening of Broward’s 100th charter school.

This rapid growth, mirroring a national trend and pushed by Florida Gov. Rick Scott, comes as charter schools are delivering better academic results and stronger financial controls than at any time in their 15-year history in the state.

“It’s parent driven,” said Andreina Figueroa, governing board chair of Somerset Academy Inc., which runs 16 of Broward’s 79 charter schools. “We believe we have the same desire as these parents, to make sure every student gets a high-quality education.”

Operated by private groups or individuals, charter schools receive public funding based on enrollment. Charter schools are free of many of the regulations placed on traditional public schools, for the purpose of inspiring innovative programs.

While more families are attracted to charters for their typically smaller campuses with science, special education, alternative classes and other themes, those in charge of traditional schools and teachers unions are concerned about losing so many students.

Broward last year had the 10th-largest charter school population among districts in the nation. And, about 9 percent of all public school students in Broward attended charter schools, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Broward’s School Board saw those numbers — and five straight years of district enrollment decreases — and declared it wants a piece of the action.

Board members this fall asked administrators to review three options: converting district schools into charters; opening district-run charter schools; and acting as a “management company” that would be contracted to help run charter schools.

There are now about 520 charter schools in Florida, with a combined enrollment of about 177,000 students and trending up each year, according to the state. The schools provide “the tailored, quality learning environments that our students and families deserve,” said state Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson.

But Debra Wilhelm, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association, said the charter school movement “is hurting us” because of a financial shift away from traditional schools.

“It is a detriment to the big districts,” Wilhelm said. “It’s lowering the budget for the traditional school system and what they need to provide for teachers and students.”

For that reason, the Broward Teachers Union earlier this year denounced five new state laws that expanded school choice options for parents, including the promise of more seats in charter and virtual schools.

One of the bills established a new designation called “high performing” charter schools, to encourage expansion. This status is awarded for having three years of clean financial audits, and for earning an A rating at least twice in three years, based on Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test results.

High-performing charters get several benefits, including more flexibility to add students and duplicate schools. They also get a financial break, because they don’t have to give as much money to sponsoring school districts for annual administrative costs.

Thirteen Broward charter schools, including six under the Somerset brand, have received this honor. Palm Beach Maritime Academy is one of three high-performing charters in Palm Beach County.

The 12-year-old school is planning a move next year to a larger campus in Lantana, accommodating an expansion to 600 students, said Principal Marie Turchiaro, who thinks the charter growth is sustainable.

“The whole charter movement is predicated on choice,” she said. “Parents can speak. If you don’t like your school you can pull your kid out.”

In yet another boost for charter schools, on Nov. 15 state officials announced the creation of a $30 million public-private fund for the creation of 30 new charters that would educate 15,000 of Florida’s neediest students during the next five years.

The source of the new grants is $20 million in federal Race to the Top education reform dollars, and $10 million from private philanthropic fundraising by the Florida-Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit venture capital fund.

Charter schools that have already demonstrated success with these students can apply for a share of the money. The goal is to close an achievement gap between poor and affluent students.

Commissioner Robinson cited the need for more charter schools to open in urban and rural areas with “persistently low-achieving schools.”

“There is an incredible demand,” he said, “for high-quality educational options in Florida, particularly in our low-income communities.”

Staff writer Cara Fitzpatrick contributed to this report. or 561-243-6642
Copyright © 2011, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

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