By Dave Weber, Orlando Sentinel | http://thesent.nl/qgYvwF
4:26 PM EDT, July 16, 2011 - Charter schools, which account for only a fraction of the state's public schools, received half of all the F's when the state handed out its annual letter grades two weeks ago.
Of all the failing grades given to public schools, 15 of 31 went to charters.
The charters, often billed by proponents as a superior alternative to traditional schools, were seven times more likely than regular schools to get an F in the appraisal of the state's elementary and middle schools.
Financed with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, charters also were more likely to earn D's and less likely to earn A's, B's or C's than regular public schools.
The results are fueling a public debate about the benefit of charter schools at a time when Gov. Rick Scott and other advocates are pushing for more school choice — and more charters. This past school year, the state had 348 charters, accounting for 11 percent of Florida's public schools, and this year the number is set to go even higher.
"We get tarred by the charters," said Bill Sublette, chairman of the Orange County School Board.
Sublette and other educators say school boards have had too little control over charters, which are part of the public-school system but operate independently. For instance, school districts have no say over teachers hired or curriculum choices made at charters.
But the charter schools' grades are credited to the districts.
Orange had three F elementary schools this year, and two of them — Nap Ford and Rio Grande — are charters.
Sublette says poor performance of some charters drags down the district, but the School Board can't force them to improve. And when school leaders do move to close them, Sublette said, the process takes far too long because of all the charter-school protections built into state law.
The district spent months closing the Imani charter, a failure from its start last fall. The School Board finally ordered it to shut down only a few weeks before the end of the school year.
Sublette says students at Imani lost a whole year of education.
He attributes the lag to the state's weighty bureaucratic process, which required the district to find health or safety reasons to shutter the school.
"The law needs to be changed so the district can move quickly when the education of a child is at risk," Sublette said.
Though parents might be expected to steer clear of the failing charters, it isn't happening.
Barbara McLean-Smith, principal of Rio Grande, says the school that caters to low-income black students has a waiting list for the coming school year, with more parents signing up every day.
McLean-Smith says Rio Grande's F is not a true reflection of her students' achievement. Grades for elementary schools are based on students' scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment test.
"My students had learning gains, but the test scores did not reflect it," she said. "I do think there should be accountability, but I don't think it should be based on that one test."
Smith has had an influx of Haitian students at her school, and many are far behind in their studies and difficult to bring up to state standards, she said.
McLean-Smith and principals of other failing charters promise to do better next year. Give us more time, they say.
But critics say that the charters' failures and explanations of why they did poorly point out difficulties common to many struggling public schools.
"You can't have it both ways. You either claim that you can do it better, or you admit in reality that it takes time," said Andy Ford, president of the Florida Education Association.
The state teachers union is a critic of charters, which it says drain needed resources from traditional public schools.
The KIPP Impact Middle School charter inJacksonville also is asking for more time to rise above the F it received.
"This was our first year, and it is a four-year journey through middle school," said Steve Mancini, KIPP spokesman. "But we are not making excuses for our school. We need to do better."
The school, part of the nationwide Knowledge Is Power Program chain, opened last fall amid praise from charter supporters who were sure KIPP success elsewhere would be repeated in Jacksonville.
Mancini points out, however, that not all KIPP schools succeed, and some have closed or separated from the KIPP organization.
Among the Jacksonville KIPP supporters was Gov. Rick Scott, who went to the school in March to sign the controversial teacher-merit-pay bill. A Scott spokesman now says his appearance should not have been interpreted as an endorsement of the school.
"Governor Scott supports good charter schools," said spokesman Lane Wright. "And he has recognized from the beginning that there are some low-performing ones out there."
Scott, who advocates rapid expansion of charter schools and other school-choice options such as vouchers to private schools, visited Miami-Dade County's Florida International Academy charter in January just a couple of days into office to unveil his goals for education.
"We have to make sure our system does exactly what you are doing here at Florida International Academy," Scott told parents, students and teachers, praising the school.
But when state grades for elementary and middle schools came out after the release of FCAT results, Florida International's new charter elementary school got an F, and its existing middle school dropped from an A to a B.
"I usually get the students who are very low-performing," Principal Sonia Mitchell said. "It will probably take a couple of years to become an A school."
Even though many charters earned A's, B's or C's, the percentage receiving those grades lagged that of traditional public schools. While 15 percent of graded charters earned B's, for example, 18 percent of regular schools made that mark. Charters had slightly more chances of getting a D, too.
Also, more than 1-in-10 charters were not even graded this year. They were considered too small to be adequately evaluated for academic performance in grading.
Charters eventually graded after escaping evaluation for several years don't always show well, raising concerns about what they have been achieving during those ungraded years.
Nap Ford Community School in Orlando, for example, earned an F after three years with no grade. Principal Jennifer Porter-Smith could not be reached for comment on the charter school's performance.
Patricia Levesque, director of former Gov. Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future, is a staunch proponent of both school grades and school choice. Both were firmly established in Florida during the Bush years.
But Levesque says school choice trumps school grades when it comes to charters.
"Charter schools are always free-choice schools, and if people don't like them, they can go somewhere else," Levesque said.
At the same time, parents may decide to stick with a charter that gets a low grade because they are satisfied with other aspects such as safety, atmosphere or caring teachers, she said.
Even an F might not drive them away, she said.
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