District-run charter schools? Hmm…

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott unveiled his education agenda last week, he threw out a potentially far-reaching idea: Allowing districts to open their own charter schools.

The proposal could address a common complaint among traditional school districts – that federal and state bureaucracies prevent their schools from being as innovative as charter schools. But how would these District Charter Innovation Schools, as Scott called them, actually work? Would they truly be as flexible as independent charter schools?

Gov. Scott

We’re waiting to hear more. Scott didn’t spell out specifics, beyond saying the schools would operate with the same funding levels as other charter schools. His press secretary, Jackie Schutz, told redefinED she couldn’t provide any more details.

In the meantime, there may be clues in the handful of district-run charter schools that already have been approved by the state Department of Education. They don’t look like typical charter schools. But in some respects, they do veer from the framework of more traditional public schools.

The Academy for International Education Charter School in Miami Springs is a year-old “hybrid’’ school that offers a curriculum based on magnet and charter school programs, with students learning second and third languages. 

The principal is a 30-year district employee who left the traditional public realm for the charter. The academy has a nonprofit board that is technically independent from the district, but has contracted with the Miami-Dade district for services, including custodial and cafeteria workers. The school also leases space from the district, significantly reducing facility expenses. Miami-Dade district and school officials did not return calls for comment.

In Polk County, DOE approved another district-run, charter endeavor, Step Up Academy, in August.

At least two of the six planned locations will open this school year, offering remedial programs inside traditional schools. (Step Up Academy has no connection with Step Up For Students, which co-hosts this blog.)

The first will open in January at Kathleen High in Lakeland. The plan is for about 150 struggling freshman and sophomores to enroll in the charter, where they will have their own guidance counselor, smaller classes and instruction specifically tailored to their needs.

“We’re designed to keep these kids from falling through the cracks,’’ said the academy’s new director, Gregory Wilson, a former dean of students at Kathleen who once served as principal of a private school.

Step Up’s enrollment is open to anyone who completes an application, though first priority goes to those who live within the school boundaries. Students are chosen by a random lottery, but they must meet criteria for at-risk, dropout prevention.

The advantage of having a district-run charter on the same campus as the traditional school is students can stay in their neighborhoods and participate in the school’s extra-curricular activities, including sports, Wilson said. Also, some students may be able to transfer back into the traditional school system.

Step Up Academy teachers will be district employees represented by the local teachers union, which means they’ll have the same contracts as traditional teachers.

Carolyn Bridges, senior director of magnet, choice and charters for Polk County public schools, said teachers in the academy had the option of becoming charter teachers on leave. But all of them chose to remain with the district.

Carolyn Bridges

However, the district did add flexibility in its union contract that allows charter directors to hire and remove teachers when necessary, she said. The contract also allows changes to teachers’ schedules to fit students’ needs.

The biggest flexibility comes with class size, which traditional schools must observe in individual classes. Charter schools only have to meet the law on a school-wide average. So when students need to switch classes in mid-semester, they can without the school violating the law and the district risking a fine.

The academy governing boards each have one school board member, Bridges said. Kathleen High’s principal will serve as the board chairwoman at her school. Wilson said he answers to the board and is considered an assistant principal.

But the boards have their own attorney and their schools’ finances are independent from the district, Bridges said. And, like conversion charter schools, Polk’s district-run charters benefit from not having to pay for their building or land.

“These are very much independent charter schools,’’ said Bridges, who was part of a transition team that helped McKeel Academy in Lakeland become Florida’s first traditional secondary school to convert into a charter in 1998.

Education leaders and charter school advocates mostly support the idea of district-run charters. But, like us, they want more information.

 “We’re all about innovation and quality,’’ said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter schools.

But at the end of the day, she wondered, will district-run schools really operate as “true’’ charter schools? “There’s a certain freedom, and that’s very, very important,’’ she said.

Cheri Shannon, president and chief executive officer of the Florida Charter School Alliance, said she welcomes the competition. But she wants district-run charters to operate by the “exact rules and regulations’’ that govern independent charters – especially when it comes to funding. Otherwise, it’s not a true competition, she said.

Charters typically receive less in per-pupil funding than other public schools and only a few qualify for capital outlay dollars that pay for buildings and land. A recent report by Florida TaxWatch found charter schools receive 68 percent to 71 percent of what district schools net. On top of that, they pay an administrative fee to the district to cover oversight.

Many questions remain.

Mike Kooi, executive director of the Florida Department of Education’s school choice office, said he’s not sure, yet, how the district innovation charters would operate in terms of hiring and firing teachers.

There’s also the issue of the district serving as sponsor and manager of its own charter schools. As it stands now in Florida, only public school districts can authorize charter schools. But there’s nothing that addresses district-run charters.

“That would have to be worked out in the Governor’s office,’’ Kooi said.

We tried, unsuccessfully for this story, to reach Wayne Blanton, executive director of the Florida School Boards Association, and Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who heads the state superintendents association.

(Image from zimbio.com)

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