Charter Schools: Something to be Concerned About in Florida?

When I learned that two candidates for the Collier County School Board are closely affiliated with the county’s newest charter school, the Mason Classical Academy, I wanted to know more – both about charter schools in general, and this school in particular.

A 2011 State Impact Florida article titled “Five Misconceptions About Charter Schools” showed that much of what we’ve heard isn’t necessarily true:
  1. Charter School students don’t have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test – “Pants on Fire”
  2. Local school districts get no say – “Mostly True” (once a charter school is up and running)
  3. Charter schools can hire any teacher they want – “Mostly False” (charter schools must hire state-certified teachers)
  4. Charter schools only have to accept the best and brightest – “Half True”
  5. Nothing happens to bad charter schools – “Mostly False”

What are charter schools? Who attends them? How are they funded? How are they regulated and held accountable? Are they a threat to public education? And importantly – what is the mission of the Mason Classical Academy and how do I feel about the possibility of having people affiliated with that school on the School Board?

In this post and the next, I’ll tackle the basics. The specifics may come in a later post -– but hopefully my having raised the questions will get YOU thinking about them, too.
What are charter schools?
Charter schools are a hybrid between traditional public schools and private schools. explains:

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free, and they can’t discriminate against students because of their race, gender, or disability. However, parents must usually submit a separate application to enroll a child in a charter school, and like private schools, spaces are often limited. Charter schools are independently run, and some are operated by for-profit private companies.

However, charter schools are still funded by government coffers and accountable to the government body — be it state, county, or district — that provides the charter. (Many successful charters do substantial additional fundraising as well.) If a school is mismanaged or test scores are poor, a charter school can be shut down.

Charter schools are unique public schools that are allowed the freedom to be more innovative while being held accountable for advancing student achievement….

Charter schools were created to help improve our nation’s public school system and offer parents another public school option to better meet their child’s specific needs. The core of the charter school model is the belief that public schools should be held accountable for student learning. In exchange for this accountability, school leaders should be given freedom to do whatever it takes to help students achieve and should share what works with the broader public school system so that all students benefit….

Minnesota’s legislature passed the first charter law in 1991, and the first charter school opened in 1992.

There were 6,004 charter schools in 42 states and Washington, D.C., in the 2012-13 year, accounting for 6 percent of all public schools.
Florida approved its first charter school law in 1996.  Charter schools are a more significant factor in Florida than nationally, with 576 charter schools accounting for 15 percent of the total. However private schools, not charter schools, are the largest alternative to district schools in Florida.
In Collier County, five of 48 public schools (just under 10 percent) are charter schools. They are:

Who attends charter schools?
As the below chart chows, almost 4 percent of the nation’s public school students attended charter schools in 2010-11; the figure is was almost 5 percent  two years later  In Florida, charter schools are more pervasive: almost 6 percent of public school children attended charter schools in 2010-11; almost 8 percent two years later.
Nationally, charter school students are more likely to be Black, Hispanic and/or poor (eligible for free or reduced-price lunch) than in non-charter public schools.
In Florida, they are more likely to be Hispanic, but less likely to be poor. Black children are about the same percent of the students of both types of schools.
How are charter schools funded?
As noted above, charter schools receive revenue from federal, state, and local governmental sources, as well as private sources. In Florida, charter schools receive federal and state funding based on student enrollment, the same as other public schools in the state.
According to NAPCS, 67 percent of all charter schools are independently-run non-profit, single site schools; 20 percent are run by non-profit organizations that run more than one charter school; and just under 13 percent are run by for-profit companies.
How are charter schools regulated and held accountable?
According to NAPCS, public charter schools are required to meet all state and federal education standards, just like traditional public schools. In addition, they are judged on how well they meet student achievement goals established by their charter contracts. And as noted above, if mismanaged or the students don’t meet certain requirements, they can be shut down.
Section 1002.33 (Charter Schools) of the Florida Statutes includes these requirements:
  • A charter school must be nonsectarian in its programs, admission policies, employment practices, and operations.
  • A charter school must ensure that reading is a primary focus of the curriculum and that resources are provided to identify and provide specialized instruction for students who are reading below grade level.
  • The curriculum and instructional strategies for reading must be consistent with the Next Generation Sunshine State Standards and grounded in scientifically based reading research.
  • Students in charter schools shall, at a minimum, participate in the statewide assessment program created under section 1008.22 [currently the FCAT until replaced by common core assessments, end-of course (EOC) assessments, and common core assessments in English Language Arts and mathematics] and the state-wide school grading system. In secondary charter schools, students shall satisfy the state requirements for graduation.
  • Charter schools are subject to the same accountability requirements as other public schools.
  • Charter school employees shall have the option to bargain collectively.
  • Teachers employed by or under contract to a charter school shall be certified.
  • A charter school shall organize as, or be operated by, a nonprofit organization.

As noted above, a charter school can be shut down for failure to perform. Under Florida law:

The sponsor shall make student academic achievement for all students the most important factor when determining whether to renew or terminate the charter. The sponsor may also choose not to renew or may terminate the charter for any of the following grounds: 

  • Failure to participate in the state’s education accountability system or failure to meet the requirements for student performance stated in the charter.
  • Failure to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management.
  • Violation of law.
  • Other good cause shown.

The District School Board of Collier County is the sponsor of the county’s current five charter schools.

I hope this post has give you a better understanding of charter schools than you had before you read it. I know I’ve learned a great deal by doing the research. 
In my next post, I’ll look into whether or not charter schools are a threat to traditional public schools. This is a controversial topic, and I’ll try to present the position of both sides. Stay tuned.
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