Wanted in Florida: charter schools with track record of helping neediest students

How can Florida attract highly regarded charter schools outfits like Rocketship and Yes Prep? Some of the state’s top education leaders hope to figure that out as they begin looking more closely at why those high-impact schools aren’t in Florida now.

Gary Chartrand

Gary Chartrand

“We need to do a better job, in my opinion as the state Board of Education chair, of serving our neediest children,’’ Gary Chartrand told redefinED Tuesday. “We need charter school operators that are really serious, cause-minded folks ready to do the hard, hard work of working in the toughest neighborhoods.”

Chartrand joined Gov. Rick Scott and Florida’s school choice director, Mike Kooi, in Orlando on Friday for a meeting with five of the country’s leading charter school operators (KIPP, Yes Prep, The Seed Foundation, Rocketship Education and Scholar Academies) and five superintendents from the state’s largest school districts (Orange, Miami-Dade, Duval, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties).

The group also included representatives from the Walton Family Foundation and the Florida Philanthropic Network, which includes the Helios Education Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Chartrand said.

The goal: identify the roadblocks for such schools and work toward solutions. There are a lot of variables, including per-pupil funding, which Chartrand said presents a significant challenge.

Florida ranks near the bottom nationwide, with an average of $9,572 spent per pupil, according to a recent Education Week analysis. By comparison, Vermont spends $18,924 per pupil and Utah $7,042.

“It does cost more to serve the highest-needs areas,’’ Chartrand said.

Chartrand helped bring KIPP to Florida and serves on the board of directors for the Jacksonville school (Chartrand donated $1 million toward the middle school and helped raise $9 million from the local business community). KIPP offers a longer school day and year, after-school programs and highly-qualified instructors to teach an academic program that focuses on college prep and character development.

Since KIPP was founded in 1994, more than 90 percent of its students have graduated high school and more than 80 percent have attended college. Of those, 40 percent have obtained college degrees.

The state wants to lure similar schools “by making long-term sustainability … a reality,’’ Chartrand said.

That might mean reducing startup costs, he said, perhaps by giving the schools access to the state’s Charter School Growth Fund. The fund is a $30 million reservoir created by federal Race to the Top dollars and philanthropic groups to benefit high-performing charters serving low-income students.

Another way to help is to streamline the charter school authorization process, Chartrand said.

In Florida, where there is no state authorizer, charter school operators apply through individual districts. But the process could go smoother if districts, state school choice officials and charter operators collaborate more closely on the front end, he said.

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