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School & District Management

State, Local Officials Tangle Over Charter School Primacy

By Sean Cavanagh — May 22, 2012 9 min read
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One of the most fundamental questions about charter schools—who should have the power to approve them—has re-emerged in force in a number of states.

Florida, Georgia, and New Jersey have been the scene of debates this year over whether state or local authorities should have the final say on allowing charter schools within a particular district’s boundaries, and over the standards for judging the merits of those largely independent public schools.

Charter school proponents have complained for years that local school boards have an incentive to block new schools that can lure students and funding away from regular public schools. Local officials counter that state boards tend to make decisions about charter applications with little if any regard for whether those schools fill an academic need in their communities.

In Florida, state officials attribute recent disagreements partly to the continued growth of those schools and the proliferation of relatively new and unfamiliar charter models. Florida lawmakers last year, for instance, approved a policy encouraging the development of virtual charter schools, but the state has only recently clarified standards for how those charters should be evaluated.

The push and pull between state and local officials over charters was on display this month, when the Florida state board of education overruled several local school boards’ decisions to reject charter school applications, which included requests to open virtual charters and to replicate academically high-performing schools in new school systems.

In Georgia, meanwhile, a ballot measure that goes before voters in the fall would re-establish a state commission with the power to create charters over the objections of local school boards. In New Jersey, a bill sponsored by a Democratic state legislator would require the approval of voters in local communities before the state could approve charters within affected school districts.

The conflicts between states and local boards “are as old as charters themselves,” said Todd Ziebarth, the vice president of state advocacy and support for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, a Washington organization that supports charters. His group favors giving charter applicants more choice of authorizers so that district school boards are not the only arbiters of whether schools can go forward.

But he says he recognizes that striking a balance is difficult, as is the case in Florida, where Mr. Ziebarth notes that districts that have their decisions overturned by the state board will be expected to act as authorizers for the very charters they rejected.

“The state is essentially arranging a shotgun wedding between two people who don’t want to be together,” Mr. Ziebarth said.

National Variations

Charter schools are independent public schools that typically operate free of at least some of the regulations and laws that apply to traditional district schools. The nation’s first charter school law was approved in Minnesota nearly two decades ago. Today, an estimated 5,600 charters around the country together serve about 2 million students, according to the charter school alliance.

Of the 41 states that allow charters, five allow only local school districts—typically their school boards—to authorize such schools, while five allow only state-level boards or education agencies to make those decisions, according to the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, in Chicago. Twenty-four states have some combination of state and local control over the approval process. Higher education institutions and nonprofits also act as authorizers in some states, notes NACSA.

NACSA supports handing both school districts and states the power to authorize charters, said Greg Richmond, the president and chief executive officer of the organization, which seeks to improve the policies and practices of authorizing entities. The group is less fond of systems in which states allow many authorizers at different levels because that approach tends to diminish oversight and accountability, he added.

Battles over plans to open new charters in districts are common in part because of the financial implications for schools. Not only do districts stand to lose some degree of oversight of a portion of their student populations, they also lose money when students choose charters and take per-pupil aid along with them.

“These issues come up again and again,” Mr. Richmond said. “It gets fundamentally down to a debate over who gets to control the money in public education.”

Florida Battle

That friction played out in Florida this month, where the state board of education on May 9 overruled seven local school boards that had denied charters the right to open. Some charter applicants had sought to make use of a recently approved state law to replicate academically high-performing charters in new districts; other applicants included virtual schools—which take different approaches to deliver instruction online, rather than in person.

Florida school districts are currently the only authorizers of charter schools, though the state board can overturn districts’ decisions. The state supreme court in 2008 struck down a law that would have allowed other entities to serve as authorizers. The court said the law encroached on districts’ rights.

One of the local decisions the state board overturned was the Volusia County district’s rejection of a request submitted by the Central Florida Virtual Board, a charter governing body, and the Florida Virtual Academy at Volusia to open an online school that would serve 500 students in grades K-9 and eventually expand into the remaining high school grades.

In documents submitted to the state, district officials cited numerous concerns about the school proposal. Those included claims that it had not set clear academic goals for students; that its financial accounting was inadequate; and that it was ceding too much power to K12 Inc., the for-profit company chosen to manage the school.

“Essentially, K12 is writing its own rules,” district officials told the state.

But state board members voted to reverse the local decision and allow the charter to open.

Board member John R. Padget said he voted in favor of overturning local action in Volusia County and other jurisdictions because the applicants had put forward impressive and realistic plans, even if they promised to deliver education in unconventional ways.

“I didn’t want any parent of a child who wanted additional education options to have to wait another year for them,” he said in an interview.

Mr. Padget said he would have been more inclined to deny a charter if the applicant had no experience operating schools. But he said the proposal to have K12 Inc. manage a number of the charter schools, including the one in Volusia County, gave him confidence.

K12 Inc., based in Herndon, Va., is a major for-profit manager of schools, with a presence in more than two dozen states and a nationwide enrollment of about 105,000 students. The company has drawn both praise and criticism recently for its academic performance around the country, but Mr. Padget said he was impressed with its work in Florida. (“K12 Inc.'s Public Status and Growth Attract Scrutiny,” February 22, 2012.)

The state board’s decision angered Volusia County school officials, who said their concerns were ignored by the board. Superintendent Margaret Smith said her 62,000-student district does not oppose charters; she noted that 10 are operating in the county, located northeast of Orlando.

Ms. Smith said the district had followed state law on judging the charter application, while state officials, she maintained, had not. The superintendent said the district is considering legal action to challenge the state board’s decision.

“School districts are painted as being anti-charter,” Ms. Smith said, but in evaluating them, she added, “we’re using the rubric developed by the state.”

Virtual Charter Issue

While conflicts involving state and local officials and charter operators won’t disappear overnight, the standards by which virtual charters should be judged will become clearer over time, said Mike Kooi, the executive director of Florida’s school choice office.

He noted that Florida legislators approved a law allowing virtual charters in 2011, and that applications to create those schools were being submitted to districts before the state had devised models for judging what applications from such schools should look like and how districts should evaluate the plans for the schools.

“That’s not to say there won’t be denials and appeals,” Mr. Kooi said. “But as both sides learn from the process, ... a lot of these issues will become less problematic.”

Patty Betoni, the head of school for the Florida Virtual Academy in Osceola County, said that many of the supposed flaws cited by Volusia County officials in rebuffing the academy’s plan were based on misunderstandings of how virtual schools work. (Ms. Betoni said she has helped represent K12 during the process of applying to open the school in Volusia County.)

The governing board of the Volusia virtual school will have “full control and oversight” of its policies and budget, she said, and K12 Inc., as manager of the school, will respect the independence and authority of that board. The sponsors of the Volusia school have an established plan, aligned with state standards, for determining whether students master academic subjects, she added.

The current state and local expectations for charters “are written for brick-and-mortar charters,” Ms. Betoni said. “The virtual model is different.”

In Georgia, meanwhile, the state supreme court last year overturned the use of a state-level commission that had been created to approve and oversee charter schools. The court ruled that the commission violated a provision of the state constitution that granted local boards of education “exclusive control” over K-12 schools. The court’s decision handed the power to create or reject charters back over to local school boards. (“Georgia Ruling Leaves Charters’ Fate Uncertain,” May 25, 2011.)

But this year, state lawmakers and charter backers took aggressive steps to overcome the legal setback, approving a measure to put the re-establishment of a state entity to authorize charters before voters, on the statewide ballot in November.

Tony Roberts, the president and chief executive officer of the Georgia Charter Schools Association, said local charter applicants should not be given a free pass, but should be judged fairly. Too often, he said, local boards have rejected applicants because they say regular public schools have empty seats, or because they fear the charters will draw more students away.

“That’s not good reasoning,” Mr. Roberts said. While his organization supports school boards’ rejection of inexperienced or unqualified charter applicants, he said, “we don’t support rejecting applications that would be good for children.”

But Angela Palm, the director of policy and legislative services for the Georgia School Boards Association, which opposes the ballot measure, said local districts are far more qualified than a state commission to judge charter applications. Local officials know whether a charter is filling an unmet academic need, Ms. Palm said, and how it would affect other services offered by the district. School boards also have to answer to voters in their communities when they approve or reject charters, she added.

“It’s not so much that [boards’] power is being usurped, as it is local voters’ power,” Ms. Palm said. “The commission is far removed from any group of voters.”

Coverage of parent-empowerment issues is supported by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, at www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 2012 edition of Education Week as State, Local Officials Wrangle Over Charter School Primacy


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