Education Reform Answer: Charter Schools?

Feb 21, 2011

Crossroad Academy in Gadsden County gets a national education award.
Credit crossroad.gcps.k12.fl.us / Crossroad Academy

Tallahassee, FL – Florida has more than 400 charter schools. The movement is fueled by a legislature that's willing to expand the pool of money that supports the program and the parents desire for more education options for their kids. But several national studies have called into question whether charter schools actually live up to the hype. Lynn Hatter reports that when it comes to their academic success, not everything is what it seems.

-

In Ms. Hickman's third grade class, students are learning more than just their basic ABC's and 1-2-3's, they also have job duties to perform, and even have to go through an interview process to get those jobs.

"For example, the desk inspector makes about 50-dollars a week. The mail carrier makes $75  a week. So the student I'm trying to teach the students how to be productive citizens when they grow up."

It's not real money, of course, but Hickman says it's about students learning life skills. She teaches at Crossroad Academy in rural Gadsden County. It's an "A" school according to the Florida department of education. Principal Kevin Forehand says because his school deals with a low-income and minority population of students, there's also a need to build foundational skills.

"We shouldn't expect based on culture alone, to be on the same playing field as a well-to-do community. Teaching language for example, would be an entirely different monster than teaching language in another school because students may not come with that background. So our goal is to close the achievement gap faster so that we can get on the same playing field."

Mathematica Policy Research based in Princeton, New Jersey looked at charter middle schools and found that overall, students fared no better or worse than those in traditional public schools. Dr. Phil Gleason worked on the study. He says on average charter schools do no better than their traditional school counterparts, but when you break student performance down demographically.

"The schools that were serving highly disadvantaged students and students who came in with low test scores had the most positive effects, especially in math. Along with those in urban areas. Schools that were outside those large urban areas and serving kids who were less disadvantaged had negative effects on student outcomes."

But Florida isn't in the norm. Its charter schools perform about three percentage points higher than traditional schools. And at Crossroad Academy, students outperform their traditional school peers by more than 20 percentage points in reading, and 15 percentage points in math.

But not all charter schools live up to expectations. Last year, 29 percent of them received a C, D, or F according to the state. Studies on charter schools show the two main reasons why some fail is due to poor management and low student performance. That was the case with the Lifeskills Center in Leon County. The school district's director of special programs Beverly Owens says the company hired to manage the school pulled out after the students received low scores on the state's assessment test.

"One, they're not making a large enough profit, because the management company is for-profit. They couldn't have more students than computers- that's why they couldn't make the profit they made in other districts," said Owens. "They also gave student performance as a reason for non-renewing. Low student performance. And I find it interesting that they would have given that as a reason because that was their responsibility."

Crossroad Principal Kevin Forehand says being a charter school brings more flexibility to look at what's not working for students and adapt.

"If we need to say hey, our data isn't looking favorable in writing lets change this curriculum, let's change what we're doing, and we can do that in house instantly, as opposed to a district school where you have to go through textbook adoption and red tape. You don't have to do that here."

Dr. Wayne Blanton heads the Florida Association of School Boards says traditional public schools have wanted that freedom for years.

"We allow charter schools to do some things that public schools are not allowed to do because the legislature prohibited us from doing certain things," Blanton said. "So what we've been asking is to let charter schools and public schools to have the same deregulation for everybody and right now we haven't gotten it."

There's a proposal circulating in the legislature to create even more charter schools. And as the push continues, dollars for traditional schools, which house the majority of the state's students, continue to shrink.