Struggling rural district could become Florida’s first all-charter system

Jefferson County’s newest school superintendent, Marianne Arbulu, told the state Board of Education she wants to turn things around.

Next week, the Florida Board of Education could make history.

For the first time, it may be poised to approve a plan that would convert all the schools in a single district to charters.

The district in question is Jefferson County, a small rural community east of Tallahassee, which operates a single elementary school and one middle-high school. Both have been mired in academic turmoil for the past decade, with school grades that languished as D’s and F’s.

This school year, the state board grew frustrated with an endless cycle of district-managed turnaround plans, and demanded the local school board return with a proposal that would either turn its schools over to outside operators or close them.

This week, WFSU reports, the school board opted for charter conversions in a 4-1 vote. That plan will come before the state board when it meets Thursday in Gainesville. Now, a big question is whether it can find an operator willing to serve just over 700 students — more than 80 percent of them children of color, nearly all of them economically disadvantaged.

The public radio station reports:

I really feel OK about the charter,” says school board member Shirley Washington, “but there’s a little reservation when Mr. Miller said he wasn’t sure we could get someone to come in.”

Mr. Miller is Adam Miller who heads DOE’s school choice office. Because of the district’s failure status, the state wants a charter company with a track record of working with low-income, high-poverty students and failing schools. Jefferson’s district of 700 students is the size of a medium sized elementary school. The Florida Department of Education has offered to help Jefferson with the task, and has identified at least three companies that could work—but there’s no guarantee they will want to. Jefferson is a risk. Florida K-12 Chancellor Herschel Lyons says Jefferson is in an uncharted situation. And if no operator can be found?

“I don’t know what the next step is,” Lyons says, “but I am focused, along with their school board and the state board, in ensuring that we support them finding someone.”

But there is an incentive. Jefferson is set to go back before the state board of education next week. If the board approves the plan, the district will begin seeking a charter school operator, and it could become eligible for an $800,000 grant from the state.  If it doesn’t—well, no one knows what happens in that case.

A charter operator could have another, less-obvious upside. Right now, Jefferson County has the highest rate of private school enrollment in the state. And dozens of parents — it’s hard to get solid data on exactly how many — have enrolled their children in neighboring districts. If a new operator can turn things around, it might draw some of those families back to Jefferson County public schools. A district that has shrunk by nearly a third over the past five years could suddenly grow again.

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