Charter Schools – Part 2

Last week, I reviewed some basic information about charter schools and generally stayed in the realm of fact. This week, I planned to move into the realm of opinion to address the question, “Are charter schools a threat to traditional public schools?” Instead, as a result of my research, I decided to review some areas of potential concern. While they have nothing to do with whether or not charter schools are inherently a threat to traditional public education, they are nevertheless possibilities to be aware of when considering the expansion of charter schools in our community, our state and our nation.

To begin my research, I read the League of Women Voters of Florida’s (LWVF) recent report on its year-long study of charter schools. The study was undertaken “to better understand the oversight, management, accountability and transparency of charter and private schools in Florida.”

A press release summarized the results of the study as follows:

  • Approximately one-third of charters are run by for-profit management companies. Many screen students, then drop those who are not successful, which public schools are prohibited from doing.
  • Charters also serve particular socio-economic groups, increasing segregation in schools.
  • Although charters tend to be smaller than traditional schools, there is no consistent difference in achievement for charter school and public school students.
  • Many charters blur the distinction between religious and [secular] schools. Some churches receive as much as a million dollars in lease payments annually for their facilities from charter schools.
  • In areas with declining enrollments, neither the charters nor regular public schools are large enough to adequately provide support for staff like nurses or counselors.
  • Retaining teachers is also a problem; most charters offer lower salaries and benefits than public schools.

The Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools [link no longer available] responded that the LWVF’s report “is flawed.”

[The study] only looked at a small number of charter schools out [of] the more than 600 in the state and didn’t take into account achievement data, and funding disparity – both documented by various university studies and our state’s Department of Education. More importantly, not one parent of the more than 240,000 public charter school students in the state was asked why they chose a charter school or how their charter school is helping their child succeed. …

Valid points, if accurate. Even so, the LWVF report raises several important issues for consideration: Does the profit-motive outweigh the focus on educational results? Is the requisite non-sectarian status strictly observed? Is the charter resulting in increased segregation in the area schools? Are the academic results acceptable? Is there adequate staff (e.g. nurses and counselors)? Is teacher retention a problem?

The League’s report included several recommendations:

  • Charters should be limited to those that fill unmet needs in identified local school districts.
  • Stronger local management oversight and disclosure policies are needed.
  • Financial mismanagement issues must be addressed, as too often the privatization of schools leads to financial abuse.

For more information about the LWVF study, including further findings and recommendations, see the state-wide study, along with the individual studies conducted by eighteen local Leagues across Florida.

The LWVF also identified significant “conflict of interest concerns” about several current Florida legislators, including:

  • Senator John Legg, Chair of the Senate Education Committee, is co-founder and business administrator of Daysprings Academy in Port Richey.
  • Senator Kelli Stargel from Orange County is on the board of McKeel Academies. She is on the Education Committee and sponsored the controversial Parent Trigger Bill, which would have let parents demand major changes at failing public schools, including having the school transformed into a charter school.
  • House Budget Chairman Seth McKeel is on the board of McKeel Academy Schools in Polk County.
  • Anne Corcoran, wife of future House Speaker Richard Corcoran, has a charter school in Pasco County.
  • Representative Manny Diaz is Dean of Doral Academy, an Academica managed school. Doral College was cited by the Florida Auditor General for a $400,000 loan from Doral Charter High School. Diaz was the leader for the new statewide contract bill in the Florida House.

That state-wide contract bill (HB 7083 – School Choice) would have weakened school districts’ ability to control business practices at new charter schools. Under current law, school systems have the power to negotiate contracts with new charter schools.  The bill mandated the use of a standardized contract, meaning school districts would give up most of their leverage. Fortunately, that provision didn’t make it into the bill that ultimately became law. But don’t be surprised if it is reintroduced next year.

I began the week’s research expecting to go in one direction, but couldn’t stop thinking about the concerns raised by the study.

They are particularly relevant because the Collier County School Board voted unanimously to close one of its charter schools only eight months ago. As reported in the Naples Daily News (“Collier School Board votes to close troubled charter school,” November 8, 2013):

Chief among the district’s complaints were that uncertified teachers were leading classrooms; the technology the school was designed around wasn’t working; accurate rosters of teachers and board members weren’t kept; financial reports weren’t submitted on time or in the proper format; and that students were being served fast food for lunch.

The concerns are also relevant because, as I mentioned last week, two candidates for the Collier County School Board are closely affiliated with the county’s newest charter school, the Mason Classical Academy (MCA).

The School Board is responsible for oversight of the county’s charter schools, including ensuring financial stability and compliance with their charter. As such, the potential for non-financial as well as financial conflicts of interest exist should a School Board member serve on the Board and/or in a policy-making role with a District charter school.

The Collier County School Board Policy No. 3113, Conflicting employment or contractual relationship, states:

… it is the policy of the Board that no District officer or employee, including but not limited to Board members, administrators, instructional staff member[s] or support staff members, shall have or hold any employment or contractual relationship that will create any conflict whatsoever between his/her private interests and the performance of his/her duties or that would impede the full and faithful discharge of his/her duties.”

The LWVF Positions on School Choice include, with respect to Conflict of Interest:

Administrators and governing board members of all public schools, including charters, must not directly supervise or determine compensation for family members. Members of the charter schools’ governing board MUST NOT have any financial interest in the charter school or be employees of the management company. Legislators serving on education or appropriation committees must recuse themselves on votes related to charter school finance if they have any financial interest in one or more charter schools.

Clearly the potential for abuse exists where there is a conflict of interest, and both the School Board policy and the LWVF Position identify things for which the public should be vigilant.

For example, if the School Board, in its oversight of a charter school, has to decide whether the school is in compliance with its obligations, a School Board member who also serves on the Board of the charter school could have a conflict of interest. She/he might have to vote on whether or not to close her/his own school. In such an event, should not the Board member recuse her/himself from both the School Board discussion and vote?

For the upcoming Primary Elections, Collier County voters will have to consider the likelihood of such a situation, and whether such potential conflict is sufficient to disqualify a candidate for the School Board.

While I will be writing about all the School Board candidates at a later date, it is important at this time to share the statement I received today, in response to my inquiry, from Kelly Lichter, candidate for District 1 and president of MCA:

No person involved in MCA’s startup is paid or has any financial interest.  We do not have any financial interest now nor will we ever.  Principal, teachers and support staff will receive a salary and none of these people are related to any board members…. If at the fiscal year’s end the school has retained earnings (surplus), they will be carried over and applied to the following years revenue.  If the school loses money over a period of time, MCA can be shut down.  Would we personally be affected? Yes but not monetarily.

Wrapping Up

Once again, I’ve learned a lot from doing my research for this week’s post. As is often the case, it didn’t take me where I thought it would. But I’ve achieved my goal: I’m a more informed voter this week than I was a week ago. I hope you are, too.

I’ve decided not to take on the original question “Are charter schools a threat to traditional public schools?” From the research I’ve done, I realize this is a controversial and passionately-debated topic, and one I won’t be able to do justice to. But I do intend to continue to focus on the School Board elections.

So stay tuned for my next post.

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