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Published in Print: August 31, 2005, as Florida Forces Charter School Closures, Sparks New Debate

Florida Forces Charter School Closures, Sparks New Debate

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Florida’s forced closing of two charter schools in Palm Beach County has stirred debate over state sanctions for low-performing charter schools, contributed to the resignation of a top state education official, and turned some charter school foes into advocates.

State Commissioner of Education John Winn threatened in July to withhold state money from the 180,000-student Palm Beach County school district unless county school board members ordered two low-rated charter schools to shut down.

At first, board members refused. They cited the testimony of families who said the charter schools, Delray Boynton Academy and Riviera Beach Academy, had worked wonders with about 100 of the county’s most-struggling students.

But one week later, on Aug. 10, board members grudgingly reversed their decision.

Shuttered Campuses

The Palm Beach County, Fla., school board, bowing to state pressure, has closed two charter schools, despite improved scores.

Riviera Beach Academy

Riviera Beach, Fla.

Principal: Oscar Lewis

Grades: 6-8

Enrollment: 50 prior to closure this month.

Delray Boynton Academy

Boynton Beach, Fla.

Principal: Joe Green

Grades: 6-8

Enrollment: 50 prior to closure this month. Has been as high as 200.

Palm Beach County Superintendent Art Johnson, who feared the state would withhold millions of dollars from the nation’s ninth-largest school system, persuaded board members to close the schools.

The charter schools started classes on Aug. 10, but Mr. Johnson said charter students who had not enrolled in regular public schools would be considered truant. About half the students had returned to their neighborhood or alternative schools within days of the board’s decision, he said.

County officials argued that the state should give them more power to force improvements at charter schools, since they’re the ones that must act when the schools fail.

Although he wants the state rules changed, Mr. Johnson noted that the county’s remaining 38 charter schools had avoided failing ratings from the state.

He also disputed the reports of at least one charter school operator who claimed the county had not supported the two charter schools.

“It’s not the district’s responsibility to go out and make them successful,” he said. “Do they have troubled kids? Absolutely? Do we have them, too? Absolutely.”

Others questioned the wisdom of the state’s forcing schools that serve exceptional students to close.

Jim Warford, who resigned in July as Florida’s K-12 schools chancellor, said the debate contributed in part to his departure.

“Under the current standards, my biggest fear is that we have set for some of these schools an impossible task,” said Mr. Warford, now the executive director of the Florida Association of School Administrators. “If they move a child from a 4th grade level to an 8th grade level, they’ve worked a miracle—yet they’ve still failed, and it’s really past time that we took a look at that.”

Support and Dissent

Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican who appointed Mr. Winn and the state education board, backed the state actions, arguing the moves were consistent with his policies on holding all schools accountable.

“If a charter school is F-graded, the innovation tried and didn’t work, and that’s the attitude I have and should have. We can’t tolerate failure,” Gov. Bush said in comments to reporters earlier this month in Washington.

Mr. Winn and state education board President F. Philip Handy also defended the state’s role.

Mr. Handy said school districts can choose to reconstitute failing schools rather than close them—an option he said Palm Beach County refused to take.

“We’re clearly not trying to close schools, but we think it’s unfair to the children for these schools to continue to be failing,” he said.

Joe Green, a former player for the New York Giants and other professional football teams, opened Delray Boynton Academy for students in grades 6-8 in January 1999. The school has enrolled students from Palm Beach County alternative schools and those who had been in the juvenile-justice system, he said.

“We never told anybody we could make anyone academicians … because these students are three or four grade levels behind,” said Mr. Green, adding that his school had just opened a new, $1 million campus. “How can anybody who cares about kids render such an ultimatum to a district?”

The evidence of improved test scores turned some county school board members into advocates for the charter schools they voted to close.

“We’re in a position that anyone could see is untenable,” said board member Dr. Monroe Benaim, an eye surgeon. “The state has got to recognize that schools such as these are serving the purpose of keeping the kids that are most likely to fall through the cracks in the system.”

Board member Paulette Burdick said the state should change the rules so that charter schools with major gains on test scores can stay open. “I’m not a supporter of charter schools personally, but these are my [local] students,” she said.

Vol. 25, Issue 01, Page 24

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