How Florida plans to use its federal charter schools grant

This year, Florida’s Department of Education won the biggest slice of federal funding for states that want to improve their charter schools.

Grant documents show the state has some interesting plans for that money.

The U.S. Department of Education announced last week that it’s doling out more than $177 million in Charter Schools Program grants to state education agencies. Florida is in line to receive $58 million.

Another nearly $68 million is going to top charter school networks around the country, but none of them is based in Florida.

That shortage of nationally recognized charter school networks is one of the issues state officials plan to address.

Their application describes “a bold and ambitious plan to drive, support and sustain the continued evolution of Florida’s charter school sector into a high-impact system that dramatically improves outcomes and opportunities for educationally disadvantaged students.”

Some of the money will be passed on to charter schools that want to open or expand in the state. But the education department can also use a portion of the funding to address systemic issues.

Among other things, the documents outline plans to improve accountability for Florida’s charter schools, train “high-caliber” charter school leaders, and bring more top charters to low-income neighborhoods.

Authorizing matters

Florida is home to more than 650 charter schools, which educate approximately one in ten of its 2.8 million public-school students.

But the rate of new schools opening has slowed in recent years.

In its grant application, Florida describes an emphasis on quality over quantity. It could use the money to support as many as 40 new charter schools a year for a five-year period. That would represent a slight decline from the previous five years, when the state backed an average of 49 new schools per year.

“Florida is committed to ensuring that only those charter applicants who have the vision, plan and capacity to open and operate a high-quality charter school are permitted to open,” the application states.

Districts authorize all but a handful of charter schools in the Florida, and a spate of sudden closures in some districts highlighted the fact that some do more than others to scrutinize people who apply to open charter schools.

The state plans to use its grant to improve this situation. Among other things, it intends to:

  • Develop “a standardized set of objective measures to evaluate the academic, financial, and organizational performance of regular (including virtual) and alternative charter schools,” which will give the public a new window into how charters are doing — and how they compare. Districts could also use the reports to decide whether to close a school, or whether to renew a charter contract.
  • Create an authorizer report card that would allow the public to judge how well districts supervise their charter schools. Among other things, the report cards would outline how well the charters in each district perform, whether the district’s charter office has enough staff to do its job, and whether it takes the time to interview charter operators who apply to open new schools.
  • Start a “leadership development program” for people who work in district charter offices, to help hone their skills.

Overall, these plans jibe with things the state, along with groups like the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, is already doing to beef up charter school supervision in Florida.

Recruitment

In recent years, Florida education officials have been trying to bring more nationally recognized charter school networks to the state’s disadvantaged neighborhoods.

In 2014, they created a district-charter collaboration program that’s helping KIPP expand in Jacksonville and could soon bring a similar “high-impact” charter organization to Miami-Dade County.

In their grant application, they say they’re working with KIPP, the Connecticut-based charter school network Achievement First and the Summer Principals Academy program at Columbia University to create a “School Leaders Fellowship program.” The goal is to cultivate “high-caliber individuals with the vision, passion and capacity to open and operate high-quality public charter schools in high-need areas” of Florida.

People who complete the fellowship program and apply to open new charters in disadvantaged neighborhoods could receive a preference when they apply for grant funding.

The state also wants to work to create an “accelerator” program aimed at existing charter school leaders “who are ready and capable to expand their organization to serve more students” — especially low-income students.

Scope and scale

Charter schools have been operating in Florida for 20 years. Since it was first signed in 1996, the state’s charter school law has placed “special emphasis on expanded learning experiences for students who are identified as academically low-achieving.”

In its application for federal funding, Florida says one of its main goals is to follow through on that promise.

“Florida’s charter school sector has made significant contributions to improving outcomes for educationally disadvantaged students,” the application states. “However, Florida has not yet achieved the scope and scale necessary to ensure that every student in the state has access to a high-quality educational opportunity.”

It will be worth watching how these plans come to fruition over the next five years.

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