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Charter schools get closer scrutiny

By Lynn Hatter

Tallahassee, FL – Lawmakers are once again taking a look at Charter schools, although not in the way some supporters would prefer. Lynn Hatter reports a string of bad headlines this year has some state officials debating on whether it's time to reign in Florida's most popular form of alternative education.

Charter schools get state funding, without having many of the same strings attached that traditional public schools have. Today Florida has the fourth-highest number of charter schools in the nation, something that state Department of Education's Mike Kooi says is something to be proud of.

"We're now up to 519 charter schools across the state. Um, we have 44/67 school districts with charter schools now. This year we had 348 applications for charter schools for the 12-13 school year, that's about a hundred more than the year before and it continues to go up."

Lawmakers have encouraged more charters by passing laws allowing some to expand without prior approval from school districts and exempting them from things like the state's class size limits. But in exchange for the greater flexibility comes the expectation that charter schools should also be performing better than traditional public schools. Data from the state shows charters do only slightly better than their traditional school counterparts, and even that data, says Republican State Senator Evelyn Lynn, is misleading.

"This chart would lead anybody, if you just presented it to the public, to believe that, oh my gosh, I'm putting my kid in a charter school', when that's not what it says. And I object heartily to this chart."

The chart presented to lawmakers shows that African American students do better in charters than in regular public schools. What the chart doesn't show is a student-selection bias. Those students may have parents who are more involved in their children's education.

Charter schools have come under fire this year for a negative news reports. Early this year a charter school in Jefferson County in Florida's panhandle was shut down by the state board of administration for failing test scores. Some are under scrutiny for having operators with multiple titles-- like one person being the principal, owner and chief financial officer. And, according to the state department of education, half of the "failing" schools in the state are charters. State Senator David Simmons says it's time to make charter schools more accountable.

"Those that fail are costing not only a human toll but a financial toll and that's what I see as the relevance to this and that's what I think we've got to stop."

State lawmakers are now looking to strike a balance between flexibility and accountability when it comes to charters. That's something that State Senator Bill Montford, a Democrat who also heads the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, has wanted for a long time.

"Charter schools and private schools should be held to the same level of accountability, same level of transparency. And if we do that, we'd be in good shape. Because truly a charter school is a vital piece of a school districts program for providing the best for our children."

As lawmakers look for more accountability for charters, they're considering whether to loosen the rules on traditional public schools. School districts want more flexibility in how they spend their money and it will be left to lawmakers to strike a balance between accountability and flexibility for both charters and traditional schools.