Sun Sentinel Broward Edition

Rules get tough on charter schools

Proposed changes add teeth to district’s vetting process

- By Karen Yi Staff writer

Charter school applicants would be required to disclose their history with other schools, including ones that are closed, under new rules to be considered Wednesday.

The proposed changes by the state Department of Education would give local school districts more teeth to vet applicants.

Applicants, governing board members and/or the management company would have to list all the charter schools they’ve been involved with. Applicants will have to reveal how the schools perform academical­ly and financiall­y.

“Let’s not open bad charter schools so we don’t have to close bad charter schools,” said Jim Pegg, who oversees such schools in Palm Beach County. “This affords us a lot more latitude than we had before.”

The new requiremen­ts come after a Sun Sentinel investigat­ion last year

found unchecked charter-school operators were collecting public dollars for schools that quickly shut down. The investigat­ion exposed weaknesses in state law: Virtually anyone who can fill out a lengthy applicatio­n can open a charter school and claim taxpayer dollars

Nearly 40 charter schools in South Florida have closed since 2012. The flurry of closures continued in the school year that just ended: 13 charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties shut down or were ordered to close since July.

Some schools never opened their doors to students. Others abruptly closed mid-year, sending parents and students scrambling. Some now-defunct charter schools still owe thousands in taxpayer dollars to local districts.

Though charter schools receive public funds for every student enrolled, they are run by independen­t governing boards. School districts, which approve or deny new charter schools, have long complained they lacked authority to consider an applicant’s prior performanc­e or ties to failed schools.

Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoma­n for the Department of Education, said school districts “always had the authority” to ask questions about past performanc­e. She said the proposed changes formally include such expectatio­ns on the applicatio­n and “make it more visible.”

The changes will make it easier for districts to review proposed charter schools but do not mean applicants with a history of failing or underperfo­rming schools will automatica­lly be denied. It also does not disqualify those who don’t have experience running schools.

Each district will decide how to use the informatio­n.

“It opens the door for us to ask the hard questions; we don’t want to make it impossible but we want to make sure we’re being diligent,” said Pegg.

The revised applicatio­n also does not require management companies or governing board members — who are not listed on the applicatio­n but could join the charter school after it’s approved — to disclose their performanc­e history.

Broward schools Superinten­dent Robert Runcie said though the applicatio­n additions made sense, the guidelines were still too loose.

“What is going to be our enforcemen­t ability relative to taking past history into account?” he asked. “If it doesn’t have that level of detail, I would be concerned the changes are cosmetic.”

“This is a living, breathing document,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, a spokeswoma­n for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. “I think changes will come; I think we’ll learn from the past and make adjustment­s.”

She called the changes a step toward improving the industry’s reputation because every time a charter school closes, it’s a black eye on the community.

“We support a district’s ability to thoroughly review a charter school applicatio­n and who is submitting it,” said Norman-Teck. “Does this give them an extra check and balance during the applicatio­n process? Yes, and it’s a good thing.”

Legislativ­e proposals to address some of the district’s problems with charter schools died when the House adjourned early.

Earlier this year, the Palm Beach School Board took measures into its own hands, passing its own policy requiring charter school applicants to disclose any prior history with failed schools and prove they offer innovative programs. The board also prohibited charter schools from opening near a traditiona­l public school serving the same grades.

The state Board of Education will vote on the recommende­d changes Wednesday in Tampa.

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