A revealing exchange on Florida charter schools

Last week, the Florida Board of Education decided two charter school appeal cases from Palm Beach County.

The two sides’ arguments in one of the cases highlight the tensions between charter school networks that say they cater to parent demand, districts that operate most of Florida’s public schools, and competing claims about which providers best meet the needs of a community. Palm Beach County is currently taking the state to court, arguing it has the right to deny charter applications for schools it feels won’t be sufficiently “innovative.”

First, attorney Stephanie Alexander spoke for the proposed Renaissance Charter High School of Palm Beach, a non-profit responsible for schools run by Charter Schools USA. She noted the same group had successfully applied to open seven charter schools in the district, six of which are now operating, but none of which is a high school.

With respect to the same application that was appealed last year, the school board of Palm Beach County openly admitted at that time that their denial was simply based on an act of “civil disobedience.” The school board here was tired of losing students to better charter schools.

It is our contention that the school board’s denial in this case, involving the same underlying charter application as last year, is really a continuation of this school board’s hostility.

This school board denied this charter application, and the one you approved last year, on one main ground: An alleged lack of innovation. This innovation requirement that new charter schools must offer in Palm Beach County is: “Something completely new and different than its own schools have to offer.” And it violates both the state board’s own rules and the charter school statute.

The School Board of Palm Beach County simply cannot deny a charter app on the basis of a standard specifically rejected by the Legislature that is not in the charter statute, and that also violates state Board of Education rules.

The School Board is not a legislature nor the state Board of Education, and it plainly lacks the authority to create its own charter school standards and rules. The school board here has simply gone rogue, and it wants to stifle competition from successful charter schools.

Even if the School Board of Palm Beach County could legally adopt its own standards of innovation for charter applications, its denial would still be unsupportable.

As school board member [Karen] Brill herself commented after voting to deny this charter application, this application was very innovative, and I quote: “I think that what really struck me was about the personal learning plans, the daily reports to parents. I think that’s things that you’re getting. Yes, we do need to do better in our district as well.”

Many parents came and spoke at the school board meeting at which this application was denied, begging for a charter school as they wanted their children to continue in the same model, and have a charter option.

Denise Sagerholm, an attorney for the Palm Beach County School Board, noted that the district objects to the constitutionality of the state’s appeals process, a matter now pending in state appellate court.

We are objecting to the unsupported recommendation of the Charter School Appeal Commission, because it does not state how or why the Charter School Appeal Commission determined that the school board did not have competent, substantial evidence to deny the application.

By failing to include a fact-based justification in its recommendation to the state board, this is clearly a violation of the charter school statute.

The applicant has emphatically and repeatedly stated that this is the same application that has been approved seven times by the school board of Palm Beach County. The applicant indicates that the school board should have rubber-stamped their application because it replicates their existing charter schools in Palm Beach County.

Please do not be mislead by this mischaracterization.

In reality, the applicant neither operates high-performing, nor high-quality, charter schools in Palm Beach County, as they would like you to believe.

The average grade of the six existing Renaissance schools is a C, and yesterday, third-grade FSA [English language arts] scores were released.

These scores clearly negate the applicant’s claim that they operate high-quality, successful charter schools in Palm Beach County.

At Renaissance Cypress, 43 percent of the students scored at a Level 1, up 10 percent since last year. At Renaissance Central Palm, 35 percent of the students scored a level 1, up 5 percent since last year. And at Renaissance Summit, 36 scored at level 1, up 1 percent since since year, while the state’s average is 22 percent.

These scores highlight the concerns that the school board has with the notion of replicating exactly what the applicant is failing to do well in Palm Beach County. At the some point, the applicant must acknowledge and embrace the need to have innovative programming, or it will continue to fail students.

At the end of the hearing, board member Gary Chartrand asked about parent demand for existing Renaissance schools in Palm Beach.

“There’s six schools out there,” he said. “Do you have a waiting list?

“I believe at least four of the six have extensive waiting lists,” Alexander, the schools’ attorney, responded.

The board voted to uphold the recommendations charter appeal commission, as it did in a previous case where the panel sided with the district’s rejection of a separate charter application. A third appeal, from a proposed Broward County charter school, was withdrawn.

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