The Good News provides a monthly column with important content having to do with topics from the legal community. We hope our readers enjoy the perspective offered. This month Tripp Scott attorney Bill Davell interviews fellow Tripp Scott attorneys Jeff Wood and Thomas Sternberg, education law specialists, to give us some “education” on a powerful and valuable option for Florida families.
Bill Davell: Jeff, let’s start with the basics. What is a charter school?
Jeff Wood: The State of Florida defines charters as “non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations that have a contract or charter to provide the same educational services to students as district public schools.” Charters must be non-sectarian – that is, not religious in their orientation, students must take the same assessments as district-run schools, and teachers must be state-certified.
While that’s all accurate, I would offer an alternative definition that gets to the heart of what distinguishes charters: they’re schools that permit parents to make impactful decisions regarding their student’s education when their local traditional public school does not meet their needs. Charter schools are public schools of choice. They are very popular — and among the fastest growing school choice options in Florida. Charter schools are largely free to innovate, and often provide more effective programs and choice to diverse groups of students.
They allow parents, who know their children best, to choose educational environments and options that serve their needs best, and in many instances, to escape underperforming and often, unsafe public institutions.
BD: Thomas, who operates charters?
Thomas Sternberg: Florida charter schools are all nonprofit organizations overseen by boards of directors made up of volunteers. A number of Florida charters are run by management companies, some of which are for-profit, but they must still answer to these volunteer boards, which in turn are accountable to the district and the state for meeting academic performance and financial standards.
BD: Jeff, besides their organization, what is different about charters than public schools?
JW: The main difference is that they are exempt from many rules and curriculum requirements governing district-run schools so have more flexibility in educational approaches.
Some are specialized schools much like magnet schools, for example in the arts and in STEM. But more commonly, charters focus on both innovative and traditional approaches proven to contribute to academic success, especially for at-risk and disadvantaged students such as high standards and expectations for all students, character-building, and safe and nurturing environments.
BD: Thomas, some say that charters underperform district-run schools because they are run by unscrupulous operators out for profits. Others say their performance can be better because they “cherry-pick” the best students. Which is it?
TS: Neither. The truth is that charter schools have been proven to deliver more performance for less taxpayer money.
Don’t take my word for it. The Florida Department of Education studied 4.2 million test scores and made 195 comparisons of academic success from the 2017-18 school year. And they found that, and I quote, “students in charter schools outperformed their peers in traditional schools in nearly every category.”
That outperformance includes higher rates of grade-level performance in 82% of comparisons and greater learning gains in 93% – even though 67% of charter-school enrollees are minorities. In fact, charters narrowed the achievement gap between white and minority students in 86% of comparisons.
Meanwhile, Florida Tax Watch has found that charter schools’ costs per-student are 31% below district-run schools when factors such as construction, debt service, pre-school programs and other often unreported costs are thrown in.
Plus charter schools don’t choose the best students – parents choose them exactly because they can expect superior results and experiences for their children. Charter schools cannot have selective enrollment processes and must be reflective of the makeup of their communities. Long waiting lists at many charters indicate that even more parents would choose them if they could.
BD: Jeff, are there other benefits to charter schools besides academic performance?
JW: The COVID crisis and concerns about parental rights to know what their children are being taught both point to the superiority of the charter school model. Our colleague Shari McCartney has pointed out that at the outset of the pandemic, more flexible charter schools were able to shift instruction quickly online while their district-run counterparts were closing.
And to reiterate, parental rights and control are at the heart of charter school philosophy, by definition ensuring greater transparency and responsiveness to their preferences in how their children are educated.
It’s no surprise then that for the 2020-21 school year, Florida’s public charter school enrollment grew by 3 percent and nationally, it was up 7%.
BD: Thomas, if performance, cost and responsiveness are superior at charters, why are they so controversial?
TS: Charter schools represent a challenge to the traditional public school establishment. Giving more power and control to parents means taking power from education bureaucrats and teachers unions, and they are the ones behind unrelenting and inaccurate attacks on charters.
They use the charter schools that fail as examples of unaccountability, meanwhile failed traditional public schools remain open with decades of poor academic and fiscal performance. That’s not being accountable to parents. The websites of the FCPCS (bit.ly/FCPCS) and the Florida Charter School Alliance (flcharterschool.org) blow up many of the myths and inaccuracies in reporting and politicized attacks on the schools.
BD: Jeff, how can parents get more information on charters and even choose one for their children?
JW: The FCPCS and the Alliance both offer resources to help parents find a charter school that is best for their child, as does the Florida Department of Education (fldoe.org/schools/school-choice/). And for parents who run into legal problems with a charter school, Tripp Scott has a team of specialists in education law.