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Helping Florida charter schools enroll more disadvantaged students

Tampa Bay Times columnist John Romano, a frequent charter school critic, published an even-handed column in this morning’s paper. He congratulated local charters for their performance in recent A-F grades, but questioned why they don’t serve as many disadvantaged students as district-run schools.

Charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, have a much higher proportion of middle-class and non-minority students than traditional schools on the Suncoast.

The percentage of students attending traditional schools in Pasco County who receive free or reduced lunches, a predictor of low test scores, is 58.2. For the charters, it’s 36.2 percent.

In other words, that ratio is exactly the opposite of what should be happening.

He’s right. Studies have found that in other states, charter schools frequently serve more disadvantaged students than other public schools, in part because they tend to concentrate in academically struggling urban areas. In Florida, on average, the opposite is true.

The reasons for this are complicated. It may be worth noting that 80,000 of the state’s most disadvantaged children enroll in private schools with tax credit scholarships (Step Up For Students, which publishes this blog, helps administer the program.) In states that don’t have their own version of the nation’s largest private school choice program, many children in similar circumstances may opt for charter schools instead.

But there are other issues here. State education officials for the past several years have pushed to recruit more KIPP-style charters to Florida’s inner cities, in part to close the gaps Romano describes. Proposals to that effect have been batted around in the Legislature, but have not passed, and in the meantime, the Department of Education has launched a grant program aimed at spurring district-charter collaboration in academically struggling neighborhoods.

There’s also the question of transportation, which is often harder for low-income parents to obtain and expensive for charter schools, which receive less funding per student than district schools, to provide.

And then there’s the basic logistical matter of enrolling in charter schools. Simply put, low-income parents are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding new schools for their children and entering them in competitive lotteries.

School districts in places like Denver have tried to tackle this problem by creating unified enrollment systems for all public schools. Parents looking to enroll their children can visit a single website and browse among their options — district and charter — and then sign their children up for the schools they like best.

A study by the Manhattan Institute concluded in December: “Denver’s adoption of common enrollment substantially increased the proportion of students enrolling in Denver’s charter kindergartens who are minority, eligible for free/reduced-priced lunch, or speak English as a second language.”

Many Florida school districts, including Hillsborough County, already have these systems in place for magnet programs and other schools of choice they run themselves. Including charters in these systems might help more disadvantaged children gain access to them.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)