Charters step in
In its early days, the charter school movement promised to empower parents in low-income communities by providing alternatives to struggling public schools. In 1996, the states first charter school, Liberty City Charter School, accomplished that goal.
But early critics worried charter schools would become exclusive academies accessible only to well-to-do families. In fact, many members of the Legislative Black Caucus voted against the original proposal because it did not require charter schools to provide transportation for students, to help poorer families.
There are some safeguards in place. Like traditional schools, charter schools are subject to federal anti-discrimination laws. State law also requires charter schools to reflect the racial and ethnic balance of their communities.
We expect our charter schools to have open enrollment to represent the communities they serve, said Adam Miller, who oversees charter schools for the state Department of Education. They cannot pick and choose based on race and ethnicity.
In Broward County, the charter schools have a slightly larger proportion of low-income and black students than the traditional public schools, federal data show. Broward school district officials say there is a growing number of small, independent charter schools in Caribbean and African-American neighborhoods.
In Miami-Dade, however, Hispanic students are overrepresented, according to the 2010 figures from the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent available for all public schools.
In the largest charter school networks the Mater, Doral, Somerset and Pinecrest academies 90 percent of the students enrolled in 2010 were Hispanic, federal records show, compared to 58 percent in the public school system. These school networks are all managed by Academica, Floridas largest charter school operator.
Miami-Dade charter schools also enrolled a smaller share of poor students: 54 percent, compared to 74 percent in traditional public schools.
In Florida, there arent as many charter schools that have been really successful in going and serving high free- and reduced-price lunch populations compared to some other states, said Kevin Hall, CEO of the Colorado-based Charter School Growth Fund, which recently committed $10 million to help Florida charter schools expand into low-income communities.
In 2010, of the 83 charter schools open in Miami-Dade, more than two dozen had poverty rates more than 30 percentage points lower than the closest traditional public school, a Herald analysis found. The poverty gap was particularly noticeable in South Dade, where the Charter School at Waterstone is located.
Mike Strader, president of the company that manages Waterstone, insisted that the federal poverty data were inaccurate, and said his school actually serves far more impoverished students than the numbers reflect. He said 73 percent of children at the school this year receive free or reduced-price lunches. However, Miami-Dade school district records show that 35 percent of Waterstones students are currently receiving free or reduced-price lunch benefits. The district keeps close tabs on which charter school students are eligible, because it disburses federal funds for school lunches.