Florida education leaders want to double the number of children enrolled in charter schools in the next six years, while also expanding other school-choice options for students.
The State Board adopted a new strategic plan Tuesday that envisions about 17 percent of one-time public school students attending either charters — public schools run by private groups — or using taxpayer-funded vouchers to attend private schools by the 2017-18 school year.
This year, about 9 percent of students are in charter schools or using Tax Credit or McKay scholarships.
But like voucher programs, they remain controversial, with some critics saying they operate with too little oversight, sometimes benefit private, for-profit managers and siphon money away from traditional schools.
About 150 Florida charter schools have closed over the years, some after running into serious academic or financial problems.
"Instead of setting arbitrary goals that have nothing to do with need or proven results," the state board "should make it their mission to improve public education for the 90% of all students who attend traditional Florida public schools," said Kathleen Oropeza, an Orlando mother and founder of the group Fund Education Now, which has sued the state over what it calls inadequate school funding..
The board's focus, Oropeza wrote in an email, should be on "investing in classroom technology, high-quality professional development for teachers and alternatives to high stakes testing."
The board has no direct control over whether charter schools open, but it does hear appeals from charter operators who are denied approval by a local school board. In May, the board overruled the decisions of five local school boards that had turned down charters they thought fell short of standards, irritating local educators.
Parents clearly want charters, which sometimes have a particular academic focus or educational philosophy, or there wouldn't be so many students on their waiting lists, said board member John Padget.
"This board favors more school choice for individual kids," he added. .
More and more Florida families, even those whose children remain in more traditional schools, are seeking educational choices, picking magnet and academy programs for their kids, for example, said Jon East, policy director for Step Up for Students, the scholarship funding organization that runs the tax credit program.
"What we are observing is a sea change in public education, as more and more parents tailor education to their own children's needs," he wrote in an email. "Both the Board of Education and the state's top school districts are doing their best to keep pace with what parents want."
The Tax Credit program, which aims to provide private school scholarships to students from low-income families, now serves about 49,000 students, with a waiting list of about 9,000, East said.
The board hopes that within six years the program is serving more than 100,000 youngsters while the McKay voucher program for students with disabilities is serving more than 31,000, up from about 24,000 this year.
It hopes charter school enrollment grows from nearly 180,000 this year to nearly 360,000 in six years, as the number of charter schools grows from 518 to 829.
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