What’s best for students should drive districts’ review of charter schools

There’s no denying there are some bad charter schools, and that some do things that make school districts justifiably upset or rightly suspicious. School choice supporters should honestly acknowledge that and diligently help in the search for solutions. At the same time, there’s no doubt that district opposition often hinges on arguments that suggest motivations other than what’s best for kids. Take two recent examples from Florida.

In Duval County, the school board just shot down applications for two charter schools because, according to the Florida Times Union, they wanted to set up in an area where traditional public schools have 5,000 empty seats. “This would add some additional seats where we already have more than we can really manage and pay for,” the district’s chief operating officer told board members. I can’t pretend to know for sure why that part of Duval has so many under-enrolled schools. But numbers that high may reflect a combination of dwindling demand and an increasing array of learning options – phenomena that are relatively new for Florida districts and pose challenges to the historic pattern for planning new schools.

Duval received 20 charter applications this year, a record high for the third year in a row. I grew up in Duval and I’m proud of it, so it pains me to point this out: Low-income students do particularly poorly there. Next to their peers in the state’s 12 biggest districts, low-income students in Duval (the sixth biggest) ranked in the bottom three in reading in every tested grade this year, according to data recently posted on the Florida Department of Education web site. Performance like that may explain why Duval parents continue to warm to charters.

All these factors no doubt make facility planning more difficult, but officials would be wise to keep in mind that no one is forcing parents to attend these charter schools. To deny new charters based solely on traditional school enrollment patterns, then, is to appear bureaucratically heavy-handed and insensitive to the needs of students. It also, quite arbitrarily, denies parents more options.

In Volusia County, meanwhile, the superintendent recommended last month that the school board reject all nine applications for new charters. Ultimately, the board turned down four and the other five withdrew.

According to the Daytona Beach News Journal, one was deemed problematic because “evaluators said its plan to serve primarily black and Latino boys would make the school discriminatory in violation of Florida laws.” Now, the application may have been appropriately criticized for other flaws. But concern about its emphasis on minority males is a head-scratcher in a district where more than a quarter of the public schools are majority minority, and several are more than 80 percent minority.

School districts in Florida and beyond have rapidly re-segregated in recent years (unfortunately, in my view; I wish the eras of integration and accountability had overlapped) and the shift has put new frames on debates about race and schools. The question is no longer whether students at some schools will be predominantly if not exclusively black or Latino; it’s what types of schools will serve them best.

Some charters have proven to be highly effective with minority kids. They deserve fair consideration.

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BY Ron Matus

Ron Matus is director for policy and public affairs at Step Up for Students and a former editor of redefinED. He joined Step Up in February 2012 after 20 years in journalism, including eight years as an education reporter with the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times). Ron can be reached at rmatus@stepupforstudents.org or (727) 451-9830. Follow him on Twitter @RonMatus1 and on facebook at facebook.com/redefinedonline.