Florida charter schools back decision to ease school grades

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Charter schools are among those supporting a tense Board of Education decision this week that prevents state grades for public schools from dropping more than one letter.

But some of them worry the move might add to the confusion parents and others already have about Florida’s A through F grading system – and erode public confidence in it.

“I think it becomes confusing to parents when the state says it wants to move forward with higher standards and wants them to be more rigorous, and then makes a safety net’’ when those standards aren’t met, said Cynthia Adversa, principal of Indian River Charter High School in Vero Beach, which is a member of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

Teachers and students worked hard to meet those expectations, said Daviem Dina Miller, who heads Somerset Academy in Davie. So when some schools that didn’t hit the mark still benefit from a higher grade, “I think a lot of parents would question that.’’

At the same time, both women say giving schools more time to adjust to changes in the grading system is the right thing to do – especially when so much rides on the grades. Both of their schools are A-rated.

“It’s hard to be under that microscope,’’ said Miller, noting grades are tied to financial incentives for schools and teachers as well as public perception. “The grades affect your reputation.’’

This week’s BOE decision, in a rare split vote, isn’t an abstraction for charter schools. Last year, Florida had 579 of them, enrolling 203,000 students.

Charters make up a disproportionate share of struggling schools and top-performers. Last year, 18 of 359 charters that received grades earned F’s – a rate several times higher than district schools. At the same time, 193 earned A’s, a rate also higher than district schools.

Like district schools, charters know what’s coming. Florida education leaders are moving fast to ratchet up expectations as they pave the way for the 2014-15 debut of Common Core State Standards, national benchmarks designed to better prepare students for college and careers. Education Commissioner Tony Bennett said he recommended extending the safety net this year (it was created last year after the state increased passing scores on portions of the FCAT) to help schools ease into them. But the move drew fire from several board members and the education foundations founded by former Gov. Jeb Bush.

Jim Horne, a former education commissioner appointed by Bush, said he supports the BOE decision.  “With Common Core coming down the pipeline,” said Horne, now chairman of the Florida Charter School Alliance, “the idea of making substantial changes now (to the grading formula) and down the road could be problematic.”

Florida won’t lose any ground by holding off, he added: “Everybody expects Common Core will result in significantly higher standards and dramatically impact school grades going forward.”

That’ll lead to more scrutiny, he said, and, eventually, better results.