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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Florida risks future with charter schools

From the Orlando Sentinel

Soon after the Legislature swiftly drove teacher merit-pay reforms over the finish line, Gov. Rick Scott and lawmakers raced back onto the education-reform autobahn for their next goal: expanding charter schools.

Scott — enamored of free market innovation — wants to fast-track growing the nation's third-largest roster of charter schools. Yet, while the speedy push for merit pay — a long-debated and necessary reform — was warranted, lawmakers would be wise to at least tap the brakes on the feverish drive for more charter schools. The schools are rife with concerns over squishy accountability and underwhelming performance.

Also, the bill inscrutably would junk the state Charter School Review Panel, which suggests tweaks to enhance charter operations. It would be foolish to think even "high-performing" charters don't require at least an occasional check under the hood.

This month, an article from the investigative reporters at ProPublica chronicled transparency and performance problems with charters run by private management companies. Ten schools and Ohio are suing one national management chain because of many failing students and the firm's silence about how it has spent $230 million in taxpayer money.

The article also noted charters fell short of traditional public schools on a critical No Child Left Behind standard. Only 63 percent of charters met the "Adequate Yearly Progress" benchmark, compared to 67 percent of regular public schools.

Research shows accountability lapses often explain why charter-school performance lags regular public schools. Given that school accountability is a GOP chestnut, making charters even less accountable seems recklessly counterintuitive.

Scott's right to seek out innovative options to suit each student's unique needs. And competently-run charter schools should join the mix. But lawmakers should proceed with caution — before students are T-boned by overblown expectations.

Yet last month, a Senate subcommittee unanimously green-lighted Senate Bill 1546. The Sen. John Thrasher-sponsored measure clears the way for "high-performing" charter-school systems to open in new counties. And districts that dare deny their marching orders could face stiff financial penalties.

Backed by public dollars, but privately run by nonprofits, universities or management companies, charters promise learning leaps. In return, they're bound by fewer rules than regular public schools.

Thrasher's bill would ease an already loose yoke on "high-performing" charter schools — those that have earned at least a "B" school grade for three straight years and received clean bills of financial health on audits.

The label would allow schools to boost enrollment each year over their set caps by as much as 25 percent, add grade levels and offer prekindergarten classes.

More worrisome, the plan would give charters even longer leashes. High performers could file financial reports quarterly rather than monthly. Increasing intervals between monitoring seems imprudent given finances often are what torpedo charters. During the 2005-06 fiscal year, for instance, 25 percent of state charters were in the hole at year's end.

And the bill would allow high-performers to lock into 15-year contracts. With charters free of much local oversight, critics such as the Central Florida Public School Boards Coalition rightly warn students could languish in bad schools that wrangle long pacts. Short of imminent health and safety threats, shutting down a sorry operator can be a time-consuming and uncertain process.

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