The proliferation of charter schools in Florida is slowing down, and school districts are not approving most applications to open new ones.
That’s according to a new report on charter school authorizing from the state Department of Education. It shows the number of charter applications submitted to school districts fell by more than a third between 2011 to 2013. At the same time, districts appear to be reviewing those applications more stringently than in the past.
There is still heightened interest among aspiring school operators in the charter sector, but there are fewer of them seeking to enter the market. During the 2013‐14 school year, there were 615 charter schools, a 6.4 percent increase from the prior year. That increase, however, is about half of that seen in the previous three school years.
Moreover, another related trend has surfaced: it has become harder to open a charter school in Florida. The majority of charter school applicants have failed to win approval during the last several years. In 2013, districts in Florida approved just 41 percent of the applications they received. This is a marked decrease from the nearly 70‐percent approval rate from 10 years ago.
The annual authorizing report, published every year in early November, breaks down the percentage of charter applications that were approved, rejected or withdrawn during the previous year. It shows approval rates vary widely from one school district to the next, as illustrated by this chart breaking down the numbers for large districts that received the bulk of charter applications during the 2013-14 school year.Another tidbit: None of the charter applications submitted to small rural districts in 2013 were approved.
The report does not draw conclusions about why application approval rates vary so much among districts. Is Orange County more hostile to charters than Miami-Dade, or did it receive fewer applications from prospective schools that were good enough to pass muster? Those questions can’t be answered by approval rates alone.
Charter applications are due each year in August, vetted by districts, and then voted on by school boards each fall, usually the year before the schools are set to open.
That means the 6.4 percent increase in the number of charter schools during the 2013-14 school year reflects the charter applications submitted during the fall of 2012, when districts approved 81 charter applications — fewer than 30 percent of the applications they received.
In 2013, the application period covered by the new report, charters submitted fewer applications, but slightly more — 96 — were approved. Despite the increase in approvals, the growth of the charter school sector has continued to slow. This school year, there are 646 charter schools operating in Florida, an increase of 31 from the year before. That’s a growth rate of about 4.8 percent, the second-lowest on record, though the number of new schools is in line with the growth seen over the past decade.
If it’s becoming harder to open a charter school in Florida, what that means depends on the particulars. To the extent it means fewer unqualified charter schools are being allowed to open, it should be good news to people on both sides of the charter debate. That would mean fewer students are at risk of displacement by sudden school failures, there is less potential for embarrassing headlines, and the quality of charters is improving overall. It’s not good news to the extent it means legitimate charters are facing roadblocks, causing students to languish on waiting lists for schools that might better meet their needs.