Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Charter Schools 101: Buyer Beware

Although Florida parents have been testing the charter school waters over the years, I was unable to locate a comprehensive analysis that examined how many parents stayed, how long did they stay, and if they left, where did they take the children? Anecdotal evidence indicates that some parents have been satisfied with their charter school experiences; others not so much. The forces of power, access, and money fueling the spike in charter school expansion are certainly counting on more of the former and less of the latter.

To that end, it is not surprising to learn that the Walton Foundation is funding a new Florida lobbying organization with members, such as KIPP, a nationally recognized charter management company, and Patty Levesque from Jeb Bush's Foundation and also an education advisor to Governor Scott.

Other players in the scene include Charter USA's CEO Jonathon Hage, who was also on Governor Scott's education transition team. Charter USA will challenge Polk County's decision to reject the application to open charters in that county.

Recently, House Representative Erik Fresen was cleared by the Ethics Commission, which investigated a complaint asserting he failed to disclose a conflict of interest as it pertained to SB7195, a bill making it easier for charters to expand. Supporting the complaint is the fact that Fresen's sister and brother-in-law work for Academia, which operates 12 charters in Florida. The Ethics Commission found that since passage of SB7195 affects all charter schools and not just Academia, no conflict of interest applies. Representative Fresen is a member of several education committees. Read more here.

Then, there is Vice President Joe Biden's youngest brother, Frank Biden, who is president and director of development for Mavericks High School, charter management company. Biden plans to open 100 more charters for at risk and high school drop outs in the next year and a half.

The Mavericks High School charter has an interesting focus and since they already operate 8 schools, I decided to see what information was easily available that would help a parent make an informed decision. I discovered that Mavericks has been operating in Florida since 2007, but I was unable to uncover performance data, retention information, or graduation rates.

How will parents make informed decisions?

This question must be on the minds of many right now. According to one report, Florida parents are showing greater interest in charter schools. The same report provides a questions for parents to consider before making a decision to change from a public school to a charter. Here's that list of questions:

Here are some questions to ask when deciding whether a charter is right for your family and, if so, which one.

What is the basis of the charter school's curriculum, and how does it incorporate Florida's common-core requirements?

How is learning evaluated? Do students get report cards or grades? Do they use books or iPads?

How experienced are the teachers, the principal and other administrators?

Does the school offer extracurricular activities such as music, art or sports?

Who sits on the school board, and when does it meet?

Aside from state and federal funding, where does the school get its money: community fundraising, private foundations?

How successful is the school? How long has it been around? Is it financially sound, and how do students perform on state-mandated tests?

Because charter schools typically don't provide transportation, is the location convenient?

Although the list puts school success and track record near the bottom of the list, I think parents would be wise in this environment to move that question up and be prepared to make a personal visit to the charter and a call or two to the school district office to get some answers to that question. Each charter stands on its own, so it is hard to say if Florida-wide performance is even available. There is much to consider and charters are not for everyone.

In short, buyer beware. There is much to consider.

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