Florida Policies Create Charter School Boom

Published September 15, 2011

A new Florida law has sparked a 38 percent increase in charters applying to open, or nearly 100 more this year over last year’s 252. The state has more than 400 charter schools, the third highest number in the country. More than 130,000 Florida students, or 5 percent of its public-schooled students, attended charters in 2009-2010. 

“The whole concept this past year was that the highest-performing charter schools that have a proven track record should be given advantages and should be replicated,” said Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We want to replicate success. Schools with a history of academic and financial success should be given the opportunity to run with less political interference.”

Cutting Red Tape for High Performers
Senate Bill 1546, effective July 1, has made it easier for new charters to open and relaxed laws governing high-performing charter schools, including those related to expansion, funding, and renewal. The bill also outlines new standards to define a “high performing” charter school.

For high-performing charters, SB 1546 allows an increase of up to 15 percent in student enrollment every year beginning March 2012, reduces the allowable district administrative fees from five to two percent for the first 250 students enrolled, permits any county to open a charter, and allows automatic 15-year contract renewals.

Previous checks on charter systems forced schools to repeatedly seek approval from outside authorizers to expand, said Jaryn Emhof, communications director at the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education. Abolishing the Charter School Review Panel means charters will operate with less red tape. 

“School districts will fulfill the [Review Panel’s] role,” said Bob Sanchez, policy director for the James Madison Institute in Tallahassee. “The way public opinion is now favorable to charter schools will make it difficult for charters to be denied.”

Freedom for Virtual Charter Schools
Senate Bill 7197, also effective July 1, required school districts to create virtual learning options, and outlined funding and accountability. Virtual charter schools will likely spread as more money heads toward digital learning, Sanchez said. 

“A lot of students could describe their school experience as a hybrid,” Sanchez said. “This is a trend just getting underway.” 

Teachers unions have voiced strong opposition to digital learning since online courses funnel less money to dues, Sanchez noted. 

Thriving under Diverse Education Options
Increasing school variety and choice in Florida has dramatically improved education outcomes. In the past five years, Florida’s overall education rating has risen from 31st to fifth in the nation on Education Week ‘s annual report card.  

“We believe that the student is the final consumer,” said Jaryn Emhof, communications director at the Florida-based Foundation for Excellence in Education.

“We had a very robust legislative agenda this year. Charter schools are one component and very successful in Florida.”

Sanchez credited former Gov. Jeb Bush for instigating Florida’s education advance through school choice, such as tax credits for scholarship donations, vouchers for learning-disabled children, charters, and virtual schools. 

Stringent Charter Accountability
Though Florida charter schools must meet the same accountability standards as traditional public schools, they must prove high performance through tougher measures.

Under Bush, Florida’s public schools receive an annual A, B, C, D, or F statewide rating based on student learning.

“If a charter school is an ‘F’ school two years in a row, it is shut down,” unlike a traditional public school, Emhof said. “So if they receive one ‘F’ there is a huge motivation and incentive to improve.”

Parents Driving Reforms
In 2009-2010, more than 90 percent of the 37,000 students on waiting lists hoped to enter an A or B-graded charter school, Emhof said.”[Florida] is at the cutting edge of doing schools in all kinds of ways,” Hage said. “We have some of the most innovative charter schools in the country. They’ve resulted in huge amounts of parental demand.”

When some parents learned their children were attending a failing school, they demanded change.

“Sometimes it isn’t solely a matter of the expectation that children will learn more, sometimes it’s an expectation that the child will be safer,” Sanchez said. “School choice is not a way to undermine public education but to make it accountable and competitive.”

Image by Christopher Michel