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Thursday, November 17, 2011

School officials wary of for-profit charter schools

From the Gainsville Sun

by Jackie Alexander

Three Alachua County charter schools were labeled high-performing under changes to state education statutes, making it easier for those schools to expand with less school district oversight.

But Alachua County Public Schools leaders are wary that for-profit charter schools with the same designation and relaxed supervision may seek to enter the county.

Alachua County has more than a dozen charter schools, all locally owned and managed. According to district data, more than 1,600 students are estimated to attend local charter schools.

The One Room School House, Micanopy Area Cooperative School and Alachua Learning Center were all named high-performing charter schools last week by the state Department of Education.

To be so designated, the charter school must have earned at least two A school grades and nothing lower than a B during the previous three school years and receive clean annual financial audits without emergency fiscal problems in the three most recent years.

With the label, those charter schools are granted extra flexibility. Those schools are allowed to add enrollment and expand grade levels without district approval as well as automatically earn 15-year contracts.

Neil Drake, founder of The One Room School House, started as a Rawlings Elementary School teacher. Then, he said, he heard a speech about charter schools in 1996 and immediately decided to open one.

The school, which now enrolls 140 students, has earned an A grade from the state for the past three years and made federal adequate yearly progress. At least 90 percent of the school's students passed the FCAT reading, math and writing portions during the last school year, figures show.

Drake attributes that to the school's small size and focus on accountability. Students who don't do assignments must attend Saturday school. Each student must read at least one book per week. Students also move from one grade to the next the day after the FCAT is administered, starting the next school year in March.

Drake said he anticipates the school will submit a letter to the district notifying it of its plan to expand enrollment.

Drake said the biggest help from the new law for The One Room School House has been the reduction in the administrative fee the school must pay to the district. Each charter school pays 5 percent of its budget to the school district to reimburse the district for oversight.

For a high-performing charter school, the fee drops to 2 percent.

“For our school, it means $39,000 in extra income,” he said. “If they can show us we're costing them more than the 2 percent, we'd be happy to negotiate with them in paying the difference.”

Superintendent Dan Boyd said Alachua County is unique in that all the charter schools are locally grown and the high-performing charters should be proud.

“They're local people familiar with local needs and willing to be part of our community,” he said.

But another provision in the law worries Boyd.

High-performing charter schools are allowed to open schools in other counties with few obstacles.

“I'm concerned that our Legislature is succumbing to the mega-Wall Street charter school operations that are certainly not local and are far removed from the public,” Boyd said.

Only one charter school application has been filed in Alachua County since the new law passed, that of H3 Direct Academy Inc.

Charter Schools USA, which operates 24 schools in Florida, has no intention of applying to open a school in Alachua County, said President and CEO Jon Hage.

The for-profit charter school district has applied in Pasco and Polk counties under the new designation with dramatically different results.

Pasco County school officials passed the application because it met all the standards of the new law. Polk County did not.

There, officials said the proposed K-8 school was not a replication of the middle school cited in its application, according to the Lakeland Ledger.

Hage said the organization plans to appeal and doesn't understand why some districts would be hesitant.

“We're not from Wall Street,” Hage said. “We're from Fort Lauderdale and we've been running schools across the state for 14 years. It should matter whether the students are achieving.”

Charter Schools USA, an A-rated school district, is the only fully accredited Southern Association of Colleges and Schools charter school management corporation in the country. Hage said only one Charter Schools USA school in the state, located in Jacksonville, earned a C last year. The company's graduation rate is nearly 96 percent, he said.

“We prepare our students for college whether they're going to choose to go to college or not,” he said.

Drake said he can't see large charter school operations opening in Alachua County.

“I just don't think a big school can come in and say, ‘Come to our school,' and they're almost the same as the public schools,” he said.

The state Department of Education announced this week a $30 million fund to help expand high-performing charter schools in low-income areas. The state and the Florida Charter School Growth Fund, a non-profit venture capital fund, will award grants to create 30 new charter schools.

“What we have now is a bent toward the privatization of education, and I don't think it's in the best interest of America, in the best interest of Florida or our children,” Boyd said.

Charter schools are almost the same as traditional public schools, Boyd said, but aren't treated as such. The state earmarked all construction money to charter schools and allows them more flexibility for class-size requirements.

“Treat us all the same,” Boyd said. “They're the favorites for now.”

Contact Jackie Alexander at or 338-3166 For more stories of Alachua County schools, go to

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