Somerset Academy, Florida’s largest charter school network, has been serving Florida families for 20 years. Since 2017, the network has been working to turn around three struggling district schools in Jefferson County, Florida.

Editor’s note: Today’s post is the final installment in redefinED’s salute to National School Choice Week. In case you missed our other posts, you can read them here, here, here, here and here.

In the charter school universe, the possibilities are endless.

Want to learn a new language? There’s a charter for that. Want to hone your STEM skills? There’s a charter for that. How about a concentration on art, music or theater? There’s a charter for that, too.

These days there even are charter schools to prepare students for careers in fields such as firefighting and law enforcement.

“The parent in Florida is a savvy education consumer,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, executive director for the Florida Charter School Alliance, which represents charter schools statewide, from independent schools to those run by national networks. “The choice movement is strong in this state not because of a particular governor or the Legislature, though we appreciate their support and help, but it’s really driven by the parent.”

Department of Education figures show charter school popularity is continuing to soar. During the 2019-20 school year, 329,216 K-12 students attended 673 Florida charter schools. That represents more than a 6% jump from 2018-19, when 309,730 students attended 658 charter schools. The increase is particularly impressive since the earlier figures include pre-kindergarten students and the more recent ones do not.

What accounts for charter school popularity?

Some would say it’s because charter schools combine the best of private and district schools. Charters, like district schools, operate with tax dollars and therefore do not charge tuition. But like private schools, they are privately operated, allowing for more innovation and flexibility because they’re free from many regulations governing district schools.

That advantage became evident in March when the coronavirus pandemic shook the world. While some district schools struggled to pivot to distance learning, many charter schools were able to seamlessly transition.

“They are smaller than a district and can make quick decisions,” Norman-Teck said. “They got (electronic) devices in kids’ hands and made sure families had connectivity at home.”

Florida’s foray into charter schools began in 1996, when Urban League of Greater Miami president T. Willard Fair teamed up with then-gubernatorial hopeful Jeb Bush to open the state’s first charter school in Liberty City, an area of South Florida known for its high poverty rate and concentration of minority residents. Though the school closed in 2008 after losing a legal dispute with its landlord over a roof damaged during Hurricane Katrina, the movement it sparked took off, with charter schools opening all over Florida and in many other areas across the United States.

The rapid growth of charter schools is one facet of charter school controversy. Though the schools are non-profit, some turn to for-profit companies to provide certain services such as human resources. Some of the strongest opposition to charter schools has come from district school boards, which argue that charter schools strip district schools of operating funds.

That’s a myth, said Norman-Teck, who explains that Florida law funds schools through a formula based on the number of students enrolled. Students who attend charters don’t put financial burdens on their zoned schools. (You can view a list of character school myths here.)

And in at least one high-profile case, a charter school company was the saving grace for a trio of failing schools North Florida. In 2017, the Florida Board of Education took the unprecedented action of handing control of the district to a charter school network. Somerset Academy, Inc. is set to return Jefferson County’s three district schools to district control next year when its contract ends. 

Last year, new doors opened for charter schools when the Florida Legislature won a three-year court battle over a 2017 education law that makes it easier to open charter schools, which had in some cases encountered resistance from their local school districts.

The law also established a “schools of hope” program that allows high-performing charter schools to open within a 5-mile radius of a long-time, low-performing district school as an alternative for families as well as to spur the district school to improvement.

So, what does the future hold for charter schools?

Norman-Teck thinks it looks a lot like the future of public education overall, with more unbundling of services as parents seek even greater customization for their children.

“It’s about the child,” she said. “Schools have to understand the children they serve and be flexible.”

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