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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The dark side of Florida's world of charter and virtual schools

Sun Sentinel Columnist Michael Mayo

Imagine a school where you show up for classes one day to discover – so sorry – that the school has been closed.

Or imagine a school where you don't have to go to school, and where as many as 275 kids who sidle up to their home computers are "taught" by a single teacher.

Welcome to the darker side of Florida's world of charter and virtual schools. In recent years, state legislators who espouse the virtues of school choice – and private companies who've profited from picking off traditional public school students – have reshaped the educational landscape to an unsettling degree.

Charter schools (free private schools that get public dollars) and virtual schools (where students use computers and bypass brick-and-mortar classrooms) have been encouraged with sometimes reckless abandon.

Recent events show better oversight and regulation might be needed.

Last week, three central Broward charter schools abruptly shut their doors, leaving 414 students and their parents scrambling for alternatives a month into the new school year. Eagle Charter Academy, with 248 students; SMART Middle School, with 126 students; and Touchdowns4Life, with 40 students — mainly poor and minority — went belly up.

And a major player in Florida's virtual scene, a company named K12, was the subject of a blistering expose by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, which revealed the for-profit company had student-to-teacher ratios as high as 275-to-1 and might be using uncertified teachers.

On Wednesday, a new virtual charter school aligned with K12 was set to go before the Broward School Board for approval. The South Florida Virtual Charter Academy – with no classrooms needed – is projecting enrollment of 700 students next year, growing to nearly 1,400 in five years.

K12 already serves around 80 Broward elementary students enrolled in the district's own virtual program, mainly kids who are ill or in athletics and show business. Broward Virtual School principal Chris McGuire said two teachers oversee those students, but he wants answers from K12 about their practices.

"I'm a little concerned with K12," school board member Robin Bartleman told me. "But basically the Legislature has made it so that if a charter application meets the requirements, we have to approve it."

And once approved, schools are basically left to their own devices, so long as they avoid multiple failing grades in the annual state/FCAT evaluations. It's up to schools' management and governing boards to make sure the schools remain viable. They are required to submit annual independent financial audits every Sept. 30.

In the case of the shuttered charter schools, it would have been nice if they pulled the plug before the new school year. That's what two other Broward charter schools – Paragon Elementary and Pompano Charter Middle – did last month.

As it stands, there's no real way to protect parents and students from such sudden shutterings. The least the Legislature could do is change the audit deadline to June 30 and compel charter operators to give 30 days' notice before closing or face fines and criminal penalties. Failing charters would still close, but at least problems would be revealed sooner, giving parents and teachers more time to move on.,0,2387777.column

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