A charter school ‘culture war’ in Florida’s capital city

A battle to launch two new charter schools in Florida’s capital city is headed to a state appeals commission.

The bureaucratic maneuvers in the coming months will be worth following. They’ve become fodder in a statewide messaging war between charter school opponents and supporters.

Charter school co-founder Jana Sayler addresses the Leon County School Board.

Leon County charter school opponents have pulled polarizing state and national politics into the local battle and raised concerns about the impact new charters would have on existing public schools. In short, they’ve created a microcosm of the broader conflict over the direction of public education.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the showdown over the proposed Tallahassee Classical School and Plato Academy charter schools is the fact that their core supporters never wanted it this way.

They describe themselves as potential partners with the existing public school system. They’re frustrated their quest has become embroiled in a “culture war.” They say what they want is peace.

And hope remains that this conflagration could help light the way to a more peaceful future.

Last week, the Leon County School Board voted 5-0 to reject the two charter school applications. Before it voted, a co-founder of Tallahassee Classical made a tearful plea that escaped mention in local media coverage.

Adrienne Campbell described how she launched her teaching career at nearby Godby High School. She spoke of her excitement after discovering classical education, and learning it could have a place in the local public-school system.

“We never wanted this to be an us-vs-you,” she told the school board. “We wanted to join you, and be a part of Leon County Schools. And that’s why we’re here tonight, as a homegrown, nonprofit school that wants to do great things for our kids, and for our community.”

However, opponents of the school, many mobilized by the local teachers union, packed the board meeting. They, along with the elected local superintendent, saw things differently. They saw a Manichaean battle over scarce resources. To them, allowing new charters to open would necessarily result in less funding for the district’s schools.Scott Mazur, the president of the Leon Classroom Teachers Association, told the board about fixed costs, like buildings and administration. If more charter schools opened in the community, he said, those fixed costs would consume a larger share of the district’s budget. That, in turn, would leave less money to pay the teachers he represents.

They also saw larger forces at work. Local teacher Francine Hearn invoked a term that’s appeared in district-charter fights elsewhere in Florida: “Civil disobedience.” If the district took a stand against two charter schools, one homegrown, one originating from a high-performing network in the Tampa Bay region, it could strike a blow against politicians in Tallahassee and Washington whose agendas limit public funding and promote school choice.

Pedagogy vs politics

The day after the school board’s vote, Jana Sayler, another Tallahassee Classical co-founder, was frustrated. She said she felt their efforts had become mired in “a culture war,” when for her, “that’s not what this conversation is about.”

Like Campbell, Sayler talks excitedly about classical education. She fancies Socratic seminars where some of America’s founders sharpened their rhetorical abilities. She wants her children to develop an abiding familiarity with the foundational ideas of Western civilization, to have read the great books and grappled systematically with the ideas they contain. Those ideas lie at the heart of the proposed school.

While researching ways to bring classical education into the local public school system, she came across others who had done the same, elsewhere in the state, by starting charter schools.

Those included Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who recently wrapped up a stint on the Constitution Revision Commission and who, like Sayler, is a trained accountant, and Anne Corcoran, whose husband, Richard, is the hard-charging Republican Speaker of the Florida House.

Opponents highlighted Donalds’ and Corcoran’s unpaid involvement, and invoked the names of polarizing national figures like Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Sayler said she is driven by pedagogy, not politics, and “I, personally, am not the right-wing, conservative conspiracy” opponents have portrayed.

At the school board meeting, a local grandparent, Donna Lee, argued a new charter school would not inevitably create financial hardship for the district. She said classical education would appeal to families, like hers, who have opted for private schools or home education. If those families enrolled their children in a charter school, they would draw more state funding into the public system.

“Accept these charter schools, and I promise you, many parents and their children will return to the school system,” she said. “We want to be on your team.”

Matt Gunderson of Plato Academy, the other charter organization whose application was denied, said he wanted to be on the district’s team, too. Opponents of the charter schools repeatedly argued public schools had received a 47-cent per-pupil funding increase from the Legislature, and that was not enough. Gunderson, however, pointed out their fates were linked. Charter schools rely on the same state funding and generally receive the same or less per pupil.

“I think Plato Academy, its teachers, would certainly be in agreement with every teacher in this room that they should earn more money for the hard work that they do,” he said. “They put their hearts on the line every day for their kids.”

Sending a message

Rocky Hanna, Leon County’s school superintendent, was less interested in seeking common ground. In one sense, he was defending a consistent position. As a candidate for his elected post, he had opposed the construction of a new high school, which state officials deemed unnecessary. If a new district-run school would be fiscally imprudent, he has argued, so would a new charter school.

But Hanna also saw a chance to make a statement.

“Today is the day Leon County Schools can send a message to lawmakers across the state that enough is enough,” he told the school board. “We will no longer be willing participants in a program which I believe attempts to systematically dismantle one of the great cornerstones of our democracy: Our public-school system.”

Before the school board cast its vote, Hanna and his staff pressed that case.

They argued charter schools fuel segregation, highlighting charter schools elsewhere in the state — especially classical-themed schools — whose demographics didn’t match their surrounding districts. As one example, they cited an existing Plato Academy in Palm Harbor, an affluent suburb in northern Pinellas County. Hanna pointed out the student population at that charter school was considerably whiter, and economically better off, than the Pinellas district as a whole.

But that segregation matches housing patterns in a district where generations of poverty and discrimination have confined many economically disadvantaged families to South Saint Petersburg, a heavily African-American community that remains a charter school desert. Charter school operators that tried to operate in South St. Petersburg fell victim to the same academic struggles as their district-run counterparts, whose travails became the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper report.

The north-south segregation pattern in Leon County is similar. And it applies to all public schools, not just charters. Take, for example, Buck Lake Elementary, whose principal spoke against the charter applications. Children of color comprise just over a third of the student population there. Just over 15 percent are economically disadvantaged. Meanwhile, in district-run schools like Astoria Park Elementary, Apalachee Elementary and Nims Middle School, more than nine in ten students are children of color, and nearly all of them are economically disadvantaged.

The district’s charter schools follow similar patterns. Both locations of the School of Arts and Sciences have far fewer low-income students and students of color than the district as a whole — in part because they’ve become highly sought-after among Tallahassee’s elite. But nearly two-thirds of the students at Governor’s Charter Academy are economically disadvantaged, and more than four in five are children of color.

Those crude data points jibe with more sophisticated empirical analyses of cities across America. Those studies show charter schools have a neutral-to-modest effect on segregation, depending on local specifics.

In short, charters aren’t the source of segregation, and any real solution would likely have to touch district-run and charter schools alike.

Another way is possible

Addressing the school board, Sayler complemented Campbell’s impassioned plea with an appeal to reason. She cited a court ruling from 2005, in which the Fifth District Court of Appeal rebuffed the Osceola County School Board’s attempt to block a charter school that catered to children with special needs.

In that case, the school board had argued, much like Leon, that a new charter school would harm its existing public schools by diluting available resources. But the court saw “no empirical evidence” to support that contention.

It concluded:

[T]he Legislature clearly intended the denial of a charter school application to be based on more than projections of future financial impact on other schools or unsupported assumptions on the quality of education that may be provided by under-funded schools. Otherwise, each district could prevent the construction of new charter schools by simply claiming financial hardship and an inability to provide a quality education to its students.

It was clear during last week’s board meeting that almost everyone — including the school board members — expects the charter schools will win appeals and be allowed to open.

The state Charter School Appeals Commission, made up of district and charter representatives determines whether charter applications comply with the law. It forwards its decisions to the state Board of Education, which tends to support the commission’s recommendations.

Leon County’s own charter review staff supported the applications — suggesting appeals are likely to succeed. (We haven’t confirmed whether Plato plans to appeal.)

For that reason, Sayler is asked, what was the point of rejecting the applications in the first place?

“We’re disappointed that they are sending us into an appeal process that is unnecessary,” she said. “It’s inefficient. It’s not the best use of taxpayer dollars or our energies.”

Some school board members hinted at a more productive use of those energies before they voted to reject the charter applications. They sought to take some of the negative charge out of the room, applauding the efforts of local educators and wishing the school district could somehow harness their energy.

One board member, DeeDee Rasmussen, said the district needs to figure out how to adapt to the new definition of public education and make its own offerings more attractive.

“We’re going to have to figure out how to reinvent ourselves if the trajectory of the charter vision continues,” she said. “I don’t know if this presents an opportunity for a unique partnership that we haven’t even thought of yet, and I would just like to hold that out as a possibility.”

It may be time for a midsize district like Leon County to import practices from larger cities around the country.

To address segregation, it could learn from the controlled-choice programs that have fostered diversity in cities like Louisville. It could study cities like Washington D.C., which create common enrollment systems that allow parents to apply to district and charter schools at the same time — making school choice options more accessible.

The district could also embrace budgeting approaches that would help it manage enrollment declines or charter school expansions. And it could mimic big urban districts like Miami-Dade, which are inviting well-regarded charter school operators into their communities and looking to learn from them.

Some of these practices may not be right for Leon County. Some might need to be adapted to its local needs.

But the spirit behind them — ending the culture wars and starting a new era of productive collaboration — could still find a home in Florida’s capital city.

One Response to A charter school ‘culture war’ in Florida’s capital city

  1. Anne Hartley May 5, 2018 at 4:31 pm #

    The Rand study you cite to allay fears about segregation was published in 2009, which means is describes what was happening a decade ago. Can you cite more recent studies?

    Not all charter schools are expected to segregate their communities. The FL state legislature approved schools of hope charter schools near lower-graded TPS, mostly Title 1 primary schools. The TPS will be closed, leaving families with no choice but to transfer to charter schools. Student demographics won’t change in that case (i.e. no segregation). Florida is new to schools of hope compared to Texas and Chicago.

    Two of our district charter schools have high percentages of lower-income students (> 90%), and two have a very low % (15-16% kids eligible for free and reduced-price lunch). None of the charter schools outperform TPS when you compare schools that serve similar demographics.

    The concern in our community is that scarce education funds are being diverted to build, staff and run new privately managed schools. Charter schools like schools of hope aren’t held accountable like other publicly funded schools. The state legislature is pushing “school choice” aggressively in train bills. The CRC is also trying to take charter school management out of district hands. We’re going to vote no on Amendment 8 in November because we believe districts should decide whether and how many charter schools to approve. The state requires districts to approve every charter school application now. Leon Co. is the first to say no. Kudos to them.

    By the way, Erika Donalds sits on our school board and used civil disobedience to describe her proposal to defy a state law she thought was bad for students. It’s an analogy used by education reformers and public school supporters alike.