An unlikely charter school battleground

Sarasota County has long been friendly territory for Florida charter schools. It was one of the few school districts that shared local capital outlay funding with charter schools before the law changed to require it. The superintendent there credits charters with helping the district maintain its “A” academic rating from the state.

But the Sarasota Herald-Tribune reports a new charter application has attracted activist opposition, in what may be a sign of shifting charter school politics.

The group, Protect Our Public Schools, sent an email to their members Sunday asking them to gather for a “Vote No on Pinecrest” rally before Tuesday’s board meeting.

Board members are set to vote Tuesday on Pinecrest Academy Gulf Coast, a proposed K-8 charter school in the Palmer Ranch area managed by Miami-based nonprofit Pinecrest Academy Inc. and assisted by academic service provider Academica.

Both Pinecrest and Academica are known for managing a variety of charter schools across the state. Pinecrest Academy alone has seven other charter schools set to open in the next two years, according to their application. The school’s application stated that they chose the Palmer Ranch area because of overcrowding at Ashton Elementary School, located near Proctor Road and Honore Avenue.

One fact the article does not mention: Recent research shows Pinecrest students outperform demographically matched peers on reading and math tests by statistically significant margins.

The overcrowding issue is more complicated. Construction needs have long helped ease political tensions for Florida charter schools. They got their start in the mid-to-late ’90s, when district schools were bursting at the seems and portable classrooms filled athletic fields. Charter schools and their privately financed buildings helped bring relief.

While that’s the case at one elementary school in the vicinity of the proposed Sarasota charter school, the district and state officials who must sign off on new construction have to consider a bigger picture.

Ashton’s over-capacity comes in the context of under-enrollment at nearby schools, Wilkinson and Brentwood Elementary, which are currently at 61 percent and 67 percent capacity, respectively. Although Ashton and Brentwood were both given an A grade by the Florida Department of Education in 2017, Wilkinson was given a C, a fact that could deter prospective parents from enrolling their children there, said superintendent Todd Bowden at a Dececember board work session.

“Our conversation about over-crowding at Ashton will have to include Wilkinson and Brentwood,” Bowden said. “We wouldn’t get authorization from the state now to build in Palmer Ranch, because they would say you have an elementary capacity in the area, although it’s not in the right place. … How do you draw parents into those schools? What would make someone voluntarily want to go? Those are conversations that we are very interested in not just at Wilkinson, but also at Brentwood.”

Bowden’s comments are interesting. The district likely wouldn’t get state approval to finance a new school, because it has enough elementary-school space. But some of that space is in lower-performing schools that may be less attractive to families, or in schools that may be less geographically accessible to them. Charter school construction isn’t subject to the same state-approval requirements, so this charter could provide a relief valve.

Similar issues have come up during a contentious charter debate in Leon County, and in Hillsborough County, where population shifts have left under-enrolled schools in some parts of the district, and overcrowding in others.

Maybe school districts could benefit from some additional construction flexibility. And maybe they could draw more families into under-used space by sharing it with new charters. Working together, districts and charters might cool some of the hot politics that seem to be flaring up even in unlikely places.

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