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State Charter Schools Challenge Study Findings

Charter school supporters are pushing back against a new report listing Florida as among a half-dozen states that have done little to hold these alternative schools accountable.

With the Obama administration calling for a major expansion of charter schools to improve the nation’s education system, Florida, an early pioneer of the movement, is drawing poor marks from the Stanford University study.

The report found that only 17 percent of Florida charter schools reported academic gains that top traditional public schools, while 37 percent showed learning gains that were worse. Another 46 percent showed no significant difference.

“The charter school movement began in church fellowship halls and around kitchen tables,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who sponsored legislation this spring (SB 278) that tightens state oversight of charter schools. “I’m a strong supporter. But I think we are also taking steps to curb some of the issues raised.”

There are 385 charter schools operating in Florida - one of the largest concentrations in the nation - and the number has steadily risen since the effort’s inception here in 1996.

While most states require charter schools to operate as non-profits or be governed by non-profit boards, Florida and several other states also allow management by for-profit corporations.

A Florida Senate study last year showed that schools managed by for-profits had higher rates of financial difficulties.

“We’re hoping to get a better handle on this as we watch the new legislation play out,” Gaetz said.

Charter schools are funded by taxpayer dollars, students must take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests, and schools must also comply with state oversight regulations.

Gaetz’s measure, sponsored in the House by Rep. Bryan Nelson, R-Apopka, sets new standards for gauging a school’s risk of financial difficulty, allows for swifter termination of a school’s charter because of financial emergencies, prohibits nepotism in school employment and promotion, and gives parents more information on student performance.

The Stanford study, available at http://credo.stanford.edu, also pointed out that African-American students in Florida attending charter schools performed significantly below their public school counterparts in reading and math, while Hispanic students showed no difference in performance between public or charter schools.

The study also found that while many students struggled in their first two years of charter school education, by year three, more positive achievement gains were found.

The Florida Education Department, which has embraced charter schools as a popular option for many families, defended the state’s performance and raised questions about the study’s findings.

DOE spokesman Tom Butler said that just as academic gains tended to improve the longer students were in charter schools, the movement’s durability in Florida is important.

“After…years of charter school sponsorship, districts are doing a better job of monitoring, providing assistance where it’s needed, and closing down charter schools that are not getting the job done for students,” Butler said.

But with charter schools likely to play an even bigger role in the Obama administration’s classroom efforts, a spokesman for Florida’s largest teachers’ union said the state’s performance in the Stanford study was a “cautionary tale.”

“We’ve always had some doubts about charter schools, but this study isn’t coming out of a union or some liberal-leaning organization, it’s coming out of a very respected university,” said Mark Pudlow, spokesman for the Florida Education Association.

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