Charter Schools

Traditional, charter schools seek common ground in South Florida

Amy Weissbaum  teaches Language Arts to 3rd graders at the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood on Monday, Sept., 30, 2013.
Amy Weissbaum teaches Language Arts to 3rd graders at the Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood on Monday, Sept., 30, 2013.

They compete for students, space and funds. But there’s hope that Florida’s charter schools and traditional public schools can move past the friction that defines their coexistence and collaborate to better benefit students.

On Monday, representatives from key charter chains and school districts gathered in Fort Lauderdale in search of common goals at the behest of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, which aims to emerge from further talks with a platform to present when the 2014 legislative session begins.

After four hours of discussion at the Renaissance Fort Lauderdale Cruise Port Hotel, the 15-member task force seemed to agree on one point: they’ve got a lot of work to do.

Broward Superintendent Robert Runcie, who co-chaired the group with state Rep. Janet Adkins, R-Fernandina Beach, said success will “take a change in mindset of both sides.”

“The language and rhetoric around this has evolved to a point in the state where it’s not healthy,” he said. “We’ll be better off if we figure out how to collaborate in a way that serves our students best.”

Like traditional public schools, charter schools receive state money for operating expenses, including teachers’ salaries and instructional materials. But they’re run by nonprofit governing boards that function independently of local school districts and some are managed by for-profit companies.

Today, more than 200,000 students attend charter schools in the state, which first allowed charters in 1996. The movement’s success has made Florida one of the country’s leaders in school choice, but also has forced a public-policy battle that has caused parents, superintendents, politicians and management companies to take sides.

“The message we got from our legislators was ‘Stop bickering, sit down and work out our issues,’” said Robert Haag, president of the consortium, which represents more than 400 charter schools.

Among the issues to be further explored by the committee:

• Finding new avenues to fund maintenance and construction for charter schools, an issue that dominated last legislative session.

• Seeking ways to boost the quality of charter schools and keep unqualified charter applicants from opening.

• Improving access to information, and strategizing so that charter schools and districts are working together.

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where there are 226 charter schools this year teaching roughly 87,000 students, officials said their biggest problems come from oversaturation. They hoped talks will help reduce unqualified operators, “gypsy charters” that Broward has to chase from location to location, and “cookie cutter” schools that have no niche.

“We’re entering a period of cannibalization,” said Assistant Miami-Dade Superintendent Tiffanie Pauline. “I don’t have that conversation anymore -- traditional versus charter. It’s now charter versus charter, and they’re eating each other. I have very few charters that are innovative.”

Talks are expected to go on periodically until December, when the consortium hopes the task force will have final recommendations. Adkins, the chairwoman of the House K-12 Committee and a member of its Education Appropriations Subcommittee, said she’s hopeful.

“This has been extraordinary,” she said. “I’m really encouraged that we can come to some solutions collaboratively.”

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