LEE COUNTY — As kids grow, they need new rules just as much as new clothes.
Charter schools — a growing concept in the United States — are much the same, it seems.
A week ago, the Lee County School District amended its policies toward charter schools, the result of changing laws from the Florida Legislature and shifting needs inside the school district.
“These statutory and policy changes are evolutionary, not revolutionary,” wrote Jeff McCullers, the Lee County School District’s grants director, in an e-mail. “They’re just small tweaks to what amounts to a historical experiment.”
The amendments to Board Policy 2.28 passed unanimously under the five-person School Board during its Aug. 25 meeting.
Changes specific to the Lee district include an earlier deadline for applications and added language about the rights of district staff to conduct interviews and suggest changes to the applications. The school district is the sole agency responsible for approving charter schools in the county, though some states have more layers of oversight.
“I think the real key is to have a rigorous application process so you make it more difficult, more challenging for schools to open, for schools to be granted,” said Kevin Chavous, a fellow with the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter schools, pro-school choice research center. “Make sure you drill down on the goals and time tables the applicant has in place. When you have a rigorous entry process, it really streamlines things down the road because the systems are in place for the accountability you need.”
Lee School Board Attorney Keith Martin said the Lee County changes were not a result of specific problems the district has had with charter schools. The early deadline, he said, was added because the district tends to get inundated with applications close to the former July 15 deadline — this year, the district received five applications for schools to open in 2010.
That deadline, now June 1, is for a notice of intent to apply to open a school in the following calendar year. In other words, a prospective charter school interested in opening in 2011 must now submit a letter of intent by June 1, 2010.
However, in the last year, one Lee charter school has closed for financial reasons: Bright Scholars Academy, a kindergarten through eighth grade school, notified the board in November it would have to close after only a few months of operation. The roughly 75 students attending the school were placed at other schools in the county, McCullers said.
Statewide, legislators have since designed more stringent financial reporting requirements to prevent similar collapses.
Additionally, the bill passed earlier this year adds rules requiring charter schools to notify parents about results of student assessment and testing measures, to disclose family members employed by charter staffers with decision-making authority and to mandate the use of a statewide application form by prospective charter schools. Senate Bill 278 also closed the door on a loophole that an administrative judge ruled this year would exempt charter schools from complying with the state class size reduction requirements.
The architect of the statewide changes said the legislation passed in the spring was necessary to keep pace with the astounding growth of charter schools in Florida.
“The charter school movement has been very positive for Florida,” said state Senator Don Gaetz, R-Destin. “It has provided choice and competition and innovation. However, as too often is the case, movements turn into industries, and grassroots organizations gathered in church fellowship halls or around kitchen tables can turn into multi-hundred-thousand-dollar organizations.”
Gaetz, a former school superintendent and member of the Senate education committee, said the policy changes have been in the works for three years, but failed to gain traction in the Florida House of Representatives until the 2009 session.
“I’m a pro-charter school senator,” Gaetz said. “But every parent, I believe, ought to have timely, valid and accurate information about how her child is doing and how her child’s school is doing. Charter schools were able to find loopholes and became casual about providing information to the community.”
Florida’s charter school laws actually already earn the state an “A” rating from The Center for Education Reform. The group promotes accountability standards as a way of achieving success by charter schools, but Florida’s regulations on charter schools are also some of the broadest in the nation.
Traditionally, a market-driven model has dominated the discussion about charter school accountability, said Joydeep Roy, an education policy expert with the Economic Policy Institute.
The argument has gone like this: schools that do not perform with or above their traditional public school peers will lose enrollment and die off because parents will defect for other schools. Alternately, charter schools that perform exceptionally well will draw students away from traditional public schools, forcing those public schools to improve in order to keep their share of students.
The reality has been something different, Roy said. Of the 5,200 charter schools that have opened nationwide since 1992, only 2 percent have closed due to academic reasons, said Roy. Significantly more have shut down because of financial or legal troubles.
“That’s pretty low,” Roy said. “You find that typically there is not a big difference. The public schools are doing well, the charter schools are doing well. Even if (charters) are doing better, they are doing better only marginally.”
Several recent national studies back up that assertion — that charter schools, on a whole do not seem to be performing any better than their peers.
But Roy said charter schools are meant to innovate and experiment, and with experimentation, there is bound to be a certain degree of failure. The important thing, he said, is proper oversight.
“One of the attractive features of the charter school idea is they are free of ‘regulations,’ and they can pursue their own academic structure,” Roy said. “They can be more innovative. Now, if you basically subject the charter schools to the same rules and regulations as public schools, then the innovation idea of the charter schools is lost. At the same time, more and more people are saying that charter schools really need good oversight, because what is really clear is there are a lot of bad charter schools.”
For that reason, some charter school organizations have been in favor of the increased regulation, reasoning that better accountability will improve the industry as a whole.
“We are still in the process of reviewing the document that was sent to us by the district last week and it is really too preliminary for us to comment on how this affects our local schools now or in the future,” said Richard Page, vice president of Charter Schools USA, which runs five charter schools in Lee County. “However, in the grand scheme of things, we have been and will continue to be supportive of legislation that holds charter schools and all schools to a higher level of accountability.”
The key, Roy said, is finding a sweet spot between overregulation and too little regulation. Charter schools should be subject to the same kinds of protections as traditional public schools, Roy said, but tailored in a way that allows the schools enough room to breathe.
“As long as you keep that in mind, I think that charter schools should be there,” said Roy. “There is a place for them.”