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Charter schools must be accountable

by Tonyaa Weathersbee
Florida Times Union
April 5, 2012

So Florida gets a B for the unfettered way in which it allows its charter schools to operate.

It’s too bad that the performance of those schools isn’t above average as well.

The Center for Education Reform, a pro-voucher, pro-charter school organization in Washington, D.C., recently graded the state a B and ranked it eighth highest in the nation for its laws that govern the creation and operation of charter schools.

Among other things, the center lauded Florida for having blanket waivers for most state rules and regulations governing traditional public schools and for exempting charter schools from most local school rules and regulations.

It also cites the Pembroke Pines charter school system as an example of how all that operating freedom can work to the benefit of students: It consistently earns As on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test and has a waiting list of around 11,000.

It’s understandable that the center would grade states on how easy they make it for charter schools to proliferate.

That’s because the main promise behind those schools is that if they’re allowed some flexibility to teach students without being hamstrung by rules that other public schools have to abide by, they can produce better students.

So Florida has given charter schools a lot of flexibility, but it’s hard to see how that flexibility is working for students.

In 2009, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University did a study that found that charter school students in Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, New Mexico, Ohio and Texas posted lower academic gains than their peers in traditional public schools.

Then last year in Florida, charter schools received 15 out of 31 of all the failing FCAT grades that went to public schools. Charter elementary and middle schools were seven times more likely to get an F than traditional public schools.

Even KIPP Impact Middle, a charter school that has been nationally praised for its success with underprivileged students, scored an F after its first year.

All of which says that measuring a state on how easy it is to operate a charter school isn’t as important as how to gauge its accountability.

That’s not happening enough. And it’s troubling.

The Stanford report also noted this. It states: “If the charter school movement is to flourish or indeed to deliver on promises made by proponents, a deliberate and sustained effort to increase the proportion of high quality schools is essential.

“The replication of successful school models is one important element of this effort. On the other side of the equation, however, authorizers must be willing and able to fulfill their end of the original charter school bargain: accountability in exchange for flexibility. When schools consistently fail, they should be closed.”

But in Florida, that bargain has been all but forgotten.

KIPP Jacksonville has applied to open two new elementary schools even though it has yet to rid itself of the F grade at its middle school.

Also, according to the Times-Union, during a meeting of charter school authorizers at Amelia Island last fall, Education Commissioner Gerard Robinson said that performance didn’t have to be addressed when charter operators apply to the state to open new schools.

Charter schools are supposed to offer students, especially students in struggling schools, a better chance to succeed academically. But that isn’t happening.

I don’t doubt that Florida’s B from the education reform center is well-deserved. But that grade would mean so much more if students in the state’s charter schools were achieving as highly — and not because most of the schools they are failing in are easy to set up.