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Building Better Schools?

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Duval County School Superintendent Nikolai Vitti sees value in charter schools, in that they provide parents a school choice, but he is disturbed by the myth and the political ideology in Tallahassee that the schools are better than traditional public schools.

Charter schools have been around since 1996, and now 574 charter schools are operating in 44 Florida counties, teaching approximately 200,000 students.

What started out as an educational movement has turned into a $400-million-a-year business backed by real estate developers and promoted by politicians, the Miami Herald reported in its investigation into charter schools.

Charter schools are publicly funded, nonsectarian institutions that operate under a contract with the School Board. Charter schools are open to all students, though the majority of those attending are at-risk students.

Nassau and Clay counties have no charter schools; St. Johns County has four regular charter schools and two operated by the Arc of the St. Johns, for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Two companies that had applied for new charter schools in St. Johns County recently withdrew their applications.

For-profit management companies control many of these new schools. There is no limit on how much a charter school can pay a management company, the DOE said.

“In many instances, the educational mission of the school clashed with the profit-making mission of the management company,” the Herald reported in a story published Dec. 10, 2011 (hrld.us/QWWDrk).

Charter schools receive the same $5,400-per-student funding as the non-charter schools. Based on about 5,000 charter school students in Duval County, the district spends at least $27 million a year to fund them — that figure could grow to $44 million next year, based on projections made by potential charter schools of a total of 8,300 students.

At the Dec. 5 meeting of the Duval County School Board, applications from 12 companies were approved and two were rejected. Another application had been approved in October. If the board can reach a contract with these companies and they have adequate financing and meet other state requirements, they can join the list of 21 more charter schools in the county.

If approved, some of the charter schools opening next year will cater to single gender students; the curriculum of two others focuses on leadership and several opening institutions focus on students who’ve dropped out or are at risk of dropping out.

One of the proposed schools, Florida Virtual Academies, is run by K12, the nation’s largest online educator, which has been investigated in Georgia, Florida and Colorado.

The Florida Virtual Academies public school option would serve up to 400 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with plans to expand through high school, said Jeff Kwitowski, a company spokesperson.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, a Jacksonville Democrat, wrote a letter on Oct. 15 to U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, asking him to order an investigation of K12. David Simon, a spokesperson for Brown, said they’ve not heard back from Duncan.

K12 said allegations that the company may have used uncertified teachers for Seminole County Schools are incorrect and added that it is working with the inspector general of the Department of Education to resolve the issues. The inspector general’s report is not yet available.

“The investigation is currently in the writing and revision phase. We hope to have a draft early next year after which K12 will have an opportunity to respond per Florida law,” said Cheryl Etters, a DOE spokesman.

USA Today reported that K12 spent $21.5 million in advertising in the first eight months of 2012. A USA Today analysis found that 10 of the largest for-profit online charter school operators spent $94.4 million on ads since 2007. K12 places its ads on Nickelodeon, The Cartoon Network and VampireFreaks.com, which calls itself “the Web’s largest community for dark alternative culture” (usat.ly/QWXh82).

Vitti and the School Board are frustrated over the fact that they must approve a charter school if it meets state standards.

“We have to say enough is enough at some point,” said Board member Becki Couch. “When are we going to ask the question: ‘Are we being fiscally responsible with the taxpayer money?’ ”

She said the school system doesn’t know each year how many applications it will get for new charter schools, making it difficult to plan ahead.

Local school officials are concerned that the approval must come even though the district has no control over curriculum content, if a charter school is needed in a certain area, whether it fills a gap by offering courses or programs not available in traditional schools or if it meshes with the district’s strategic plan.

“I would never prevent parents from having choices; what I don’t like is that we cannot place charter schools within our strategic plan,” Vitti said in an interview with Folio Weekly.

The district is now entering the contract phase with the proposed charter schools. The district will voice its concerns when creating the contracts, Vitti said.

“We are being much more thorough and engaged to ensure [that] when the schools set up shop, they can be successful,” Vitti said.

Charter schools often have innovative missions and approaches to teaching. Some schools focus on the arts, sciences and technologies, while others serve students at risk of academic failure and students with disabilities.

Calls and emails to several Duval County charter schools, seeking comment, were not returned. “This next agreement gives the charter school a measure of expanded freedom relative to traditional public schools in return for a commitment of higher standards of accountability,” the Florida Department of Education states on its website.

“There is frustration that we are not on an equal playing field” against charter schools, which have more flexibility on class sizes, materials and capital funding, Vitti said.

“What is fair for charter schools should be fair for regular schools,” Vitti said.

Vitti said he has problems with the ideology in Tallahassee that charter schools are better than traditional or non-charter schools.

Using a chart prepared by his staff, Vitti showed that Duval County students enrolled in traditional schools outperformed those in charter schools in most areas, especially in reading and math at the elementary and high school levels.

Fourth-grade students enrolled in Duval County’s traditional schools outperformed fourth-grade students throughout the state in areas of mathematics.

“I think the public is not aware that we are outperforming most charter schools,” Couch said.

However, in a report on Florida’s charter schools, the DOE said it made 96 comparisons of regular schools to charter schools and found the percentage of students making learning gains was higher in charter schools in 79 of the 96 comparisons, while the percentage of students in public schools making learning gains was higher in only 7 of the 96 comparisons.

In the 2010-’11 school year, 52 percent of charter schools received an A grade, 13 percent earned a B, 14 percent a C, 5 percent a D and 5 percent earned an F. The other 11 percent represents 40 charter schools that were not graded. Exempted schools include Department of Juvenile Justice schools, special-education schools and alternative schools.

Among non-charter schools in the same year, 53 percent received an A grade, 23 percent a B, 18 percent a C, 5 percent a D grade and 1 percent an F grade.

Those in favor of charter schools say the choice provides a vehicle for teaching in specialized areas.

Those opposed to charter schools say the schools siphon dollars out of education systems and are overseen by boards not responsible to an elected school board.

The DOE said charter schools are becoming increasingly diverse. In 2011-’12, 64 percent of the students served were minorities, with Hispanics representing 36 percent and African Americans representing 23 percent.

Stan Smith, a University of Central Florida professor of finance, reviewed state education statistics and questioned the state’s assertions that charter schools were superior.

Smith claims that the income level of the student has a huge impact on school and student performance and should be factored in to determine if charter schools are more effective.

“The numbers tell us that we should question the state’s increasing emphasis on charter schools because, as a group, they under-perform traditional public schools,” he said.

“The charter supporters often strongly believe that the free market and competition will lead to better schools. My results suggest that the average charter does not perform as well as non-charters. Their faith is so strong [that] they discount any evidence that is contrary to their faith,” he said.

State Sen. John Thrasher shocked some residents with remarks about charter schools in August. At the time, two companies were planning to open two new charter schools in St. Johns County. Those plans were recently withdrawn.

When told of the plans, Thrasher said he didn’t know why charter companies wanted to come to a successful district such as St. Johns County. “Why fix or try to fix something that is not broken?” Thrasher said, according to the St. Augustine Record. “People are happy with the schools, they’re doing well and they do a good job.”

He said it was important for people to have a choice when schools were “truly failing.” Thrasher, a proponent of charter schools, is chairman of the Senate rules committee and sits on the appropriations committee and appropriations committee on education.

The debate over the best way to educate the state’s school children is likely to continue.

“This has become a hot topic. It’s not about politics. It is making sure every child has access to quality schools,” Duval County School Board member Becki Couch said.

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