I never really understood the charter school vs. district school debate. My goal as a parent was to send my kids to the very best school I could find or afford (district, charter, private, you name it), and work hard to make sure they didn’t become anyone’s educational statistic.
Today, the hottest news in this charter vs. traditional public school war in Florida is House Bill 7069. It somehow slid into home base at the end of Florida’s legislative session, swinging open some pretty big doors for charter school funding. Superintendents and media leaped into action, mainly because the basic amount needed for traditional public schools was not funded, and there were dirty poli-tricks used to pass the bill. That would make me go into fight mode, too.
But things are never that simple, right? In and of itself, charter schools are not the devil. Not properly funding what our kids need, however, is.
Charters ruffle feathers in our state because there are too many examples of opportunists who have used the gaping loopholes to create charter “schools” in shopping centers and empty office spaces, only to fail kids and eventually close. Fight mode ensues once again.
When done well however, charters can quickly fill in the landscape of quality school choices where district education can’t. Let’s take for example the Pembroke Pines Charter School (PPCS) system: the largest, most successful municipally run charter school system in the nation.
If they come, we will build it
When hurricane Andrew tore through South Florida in 1992 hundreds of families migrated north from Miami Dade to Broward County. Developers couldn’t build homes fast enough to meet demand. Pembroke Pines quadrupled becoming the 2nd largest city in Broward and 11th largest in Florida. Everything had to change. Roads had to be built and supermarkets had to start carrying more Latin-American and Caribbean fare to serve the new 61,000 very diverse households.
And, with large family-style homes came lots and lots of kids. The city knew more schools would be needed, and fast. Broward County Schools did build a few new schools, but it wasn’t enough and led to serious overcrowding. Academic performance suffered. Frustrated, the City of Pembroke Pines did something pretty radical. They got a charter and built their own schools.
PPCS opened 6,000 seats in its feeder pattern of 4 elementary schools, 2 middle schools and one high school. 84% of the students in the elementary school are black or Hispanic, and the middle and high schools are at 76%. Reflective of the working class community, about a quarter of the students qualify for free or reduced priced lunch.
What’s different about Pines Charters
Pembroke Pines Charter Schools get no city money. The schools are funded by per-student dollars from the state, profits from their preschools, and fundraising. This is about .66 cents to every dollar of a traditional public school.
With no external management company every dollar is reinvested into the schools. The 5 principals report to the Pembroke Pines city manager, who is in essence their superintendent, and the county commission acts as the governing board. Decisions are pushed down to the principal with minimal interference from the city. But with much autonomy comes very high expectations: to deliver great performance outcomes.
Current Vice Mayor Angelo Castillo is a big supporter of PPCS. “We basically run a public prep school,” he shared, “but we take all kids regardless of test scores, disability or behavior issues.” There is a college-going expectation from day one, parents must volunteer, and students follow prep school-like rules such as a detailed uniform policy.
The formula worked. Since opening in 2000, the elementary and middle schools have consistently held “A” ratings. The high school has a 99% graduation rate, and an “A” rating for the last 8 years. There are about 2 kids on the waitlist for every seat in PPCS.
Public education’s best friend, not worst enemy
Castillo recognizes that being a charter allows them to do some things differently. Their tightknit system means principals are closer to their leadership and empowered to make quick, school-specific decisions.
Requiring parents to volunteer in the school is also something districts can’t do. It bolsters the classroom-to-home partnership, and isn’t a hard sell to charter school parents who are usually more engaged anyways due to the process they have to go through to get into the charter in the first place.
Castillo, a self-proclaimed public education advocate, believes charter schools and traditional public schools work best when they co-exist. “Charters are public education’s best friend, not worst enemy,” he stated. “66 cents to the dollar is very different for 6,000 students than it would be for 60,000.”
Charter schools alleviate the pressure on the traditional public school system, and challenges innovations in excellence. The evidence is in Pembroke Pines where now all the schools have high grades, none are overcrowded, and there is a mutual respect between traditional public and charter.
I suspect neither charters or private schools want to scale to the level of traditional public schools. Let’s face it, the rules, infrastructure and politics involved in being the provider of a large district is not as sexy. Charters would lose their luster and exactly what makes them nimble and different.
So, I think everyone needs to reframe their energies in the district vs. charter fight. Now, the quality, funding and accountability fight…that’s a whole other Oprah show.