Two months ago, Cristina Duque moved from Miami to Orlando. That meant, among other things, finding a new school for her 11-year-old son Isaiah. He could have gone to Howard Middle School, which tests slightly below the district FCAT average. But Duque decided to go another route that better suited Isaiah.
"I picked a charter school because I was disappointed with public school performance," Duque says. "Since the classes are smaller he gets more attention, and I liked that the school focuses on science and math, two of his stronger subjects."
Her story isn't unique. Throughout Florida, charter schools are exploding in popularity. Their numbers have climbed 300 percent in the last eight years — from 118 in 2000 to 358 now — and there are 17 in Orange County.
These schools have gained traction in part because of the perceived weaknesses of traditional public schools. They operate via a contract with a private manager and have freedoms of which other schools can only dream. They can limit enrollment or set curricula targeted at specific subjects like math or science.
Typically, these charters fell under the jurisdiction of the state's 67 countywide school districts, which set contract rates and open and close the schools at will. But not in Orange County — at least not anymore. As of June 17, Orange County Public Schools has to share its regulatory power with the Florida Schools of Excellence Commission, a state board created in 2006 by then Gov. Jeb Bush, and they don't like it one bit.
"We had exclusivity, and because our scores weren't what they considered perfect, we lost it," says Evelyn Chandler, OCPS' director of school-choice services.
In essence, the state decided the school district wasn't adequately managing its charter schools. (OCPS received a 39 out of a possible 50 on its evaluation.) State audits from 2005 showed cases where OCPS charter school teachers weren't properly certified or didn't hold current teaching certificates. In 2007, numerous charter school insurance documents went missing. Orange County wasn't alone. In fact, only five of the 36 districts that were evaluated scored well enough to keep control of their charter schools.
The district filed an appeal with state education authorities seeking to get back its exclusivity. But in July, the Florida Department of Education recommended that the state's education commissioner deny the OCPS appeal. (As of press time, there's been no final ruling issued.)
OCPS isn't happy. "Those are our kids, and we are doing what we're supposed to and more. They should come to us first, and then maybe have the option to go to someone else," Chandler says. "The state expects the district to score 100 percent but `also` make it easy for charters to open, and that's not fair."
The state also expects the district to pay up, even after the state takes control. State-sponsored charter schools are still funded with the district's money. Charter schools receive about one-third less money than their public-school counterparts — about $6,000 per student, compared to public schools' $9,000 per student, according to the pro-charter Center for Education Reform. In all, Florida taxpayers funneled more than $53 million into charter schools last year.
But under this new setup, the districts have no say in how many schools the state board can or will open, or how much district money will go to those schools. As school officials note, if a charter school screws up, the district wants the ability to shut it down, rather than keep writing checks into a financial black hole.
"We've already had two charter schools in the last year close over debt issues," Chandler says. "We don't want to be fiscally responsible for schools only the `state` commission has control over."
Charter school advocates say the new arrangement, in which charter schools can choose to be sponsored by the local boards or the state's commission, is exactly as it should be.
"What Orange County charters need `are` options," says Lynn Norman, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. Norman says she supports "alternative authorizers" like the state commission because they have no hidden agendas.
But school districts might, Norman argues: "The district wants control of what schools open in their area because the performance of that school reflects on them. The `state commission` doesn't have a whole district to worry about. They are only focused on monitoring charters, and that provides quality."
In the same way that charter schools were expected to boost public school performance by providing choice — and competition — state officials believe that the state's presence will encourage districts to treat their charter schools better.
The state commission was created after charter school operators complained that school districts were treating them unfairly. Since the district has to fund both charters and traditional public schools, charter advocates were concerned that they might neglect new charter school applications.
"We are a different way of getting approved," says Judie Budnick, vice chair of the state commission. Budnick says that charters will sometimes approach the commission because they've had trouble negotiating their contracts with the district. "We might get approached by a potential charter whose initial contract with the district had regional provisions that stated where exactly the student population had to be taken from, and the `commission` won't mandate those provisions."
In other words, the state is more flexible than the locals — which makes sense, considering that the locals are paying the bills. Currently, the commission only sponsors 18 Florida charter schools, but that number is likely to rise quickly. According to Ileana Gomez, the commission's interim director, it received 54 more applications from potential charters this year alone, two of which came from Orange County.
Charter school advocates say this is all about choice. As Norman, of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, puts it, "If the district isn't providing, then `charter school applicants will` go to the `state commission`. But they should at least have that option."