Districts have the power to monitor and evaluate charter schools

June 25, 2014 -- The following is the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools' response to an inaccurate and uninformed investigation conducted by the Sun Sentinel and published on June 22-23, 2014.

The Sun-Sentinel’s recent look into charter schools in South Florida begins with two assertions that underpin the entire story, claiming that “virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity” and the local school districts have “limited power to intervene when cash is mismanaged or students are deprived basic supplies- even classrooms.” While these claims make great headlines, they are inaccurate and uninformed.

Obtaining approval to open a charter school in Florida is a challenging prospect. An applicant must develop and submit, to the local school district, a description of the entire educational, financial, and governance model of the proposed school. Applicants must lay out this plan using a state-developed application that includes 19 sections, over 85 individual questions, and 50 separate standards that must be met in full. They must also describe the students they plan to serve, the research based educational program and curriculum to be used (which must align with Florida Standards), the frequency and types of assessments that will be administered (in addition to the statewide assessments), the governance model of the school, including background information on any proposed governing board members, the management structure of the school, the criteria to select the school leader, and a five-year operating budget that includes revenue projections, expenses, and anticipated fund balances. This district then must thoroughly review the application.

Serving as the gatekeeper, the district is tasked with ensuring that every aspect of the application is sound and meets rigorous standards. It is a district’s responsibility to deny those applications that do not meet their criteria.

The article states that once a district approves a charter school it is virtually powerless to intercede if problems arise. This is false. The law provides districts with broad authority to terminate a charter school for poor academic or financial performance, violations of the law or any threat to the health, safety or welfare of students. The law also provides an additional good cause reason for termination that provides districts with additional authority to close schools not performing well.

Charter schools must submit to districts monthly financial statements that include balance sheets and revenue statements, expenditures, and fund balance changes. Additionally, they must have annual financial audits completed by independent certified public accountants. Districts may require financial corrective action plans when they identify a deteriorating financial condition and may close a charter school that fails to correct the financial deficiencies or fails to meet generally accepted standards of fiscal management. A district may also, at any time, launch a programmatic review of a charter school in order to evaluate all facets of operations.

The law provides strict academic accountability as well, requiring school improvement plans for low performing charter schools to be reviewed and approved by districts. The law also requires that every charter contract provide for cancellation of the charter if insufficient progress has been made in attaining the student achievement objectives of the charter school. Also, the legislature two years ago enacted a law mandating the closure of charter schools that receive two consecutive school grades of “F.”

In addition to the broad and comprehensive authority granted to districts via state charter school law, every charter school in Florida operates pursuant to a legal contract between the charter school and the district. These contracts must require the certification of charter school teachers and the fingerprinting of all employees and governing board members. Additionally, charter school boards are held to the same conflict-of-interest and ethics requires as traditional school boards.

Importantly, these contracts typically include additional causes for closure. For example, the standard contract template used by Broward County includes more than 50 specific reasons for which the district can close a charter school. Clearly, districts have the power to intervene at any time, and close ineffective charter schools.

While a charter school that is closed by the district can file an appeal with the courts, in Florida’s almost twenty years of charter schools, only once has a district’s decision to terminate a charter school been overturned on appeal. Are there charter schools currently in existence that are not serving students or the public well? Probably. There are bad players in every industry. And those charter schools not meeting their mission and serving their students should be closed immediately. But to argue that the charter school sector in Florida lacks oversight is to ignore the sophisticated and comprehensive regulatory framework that exists. The presence of bad actors in the charter school sector is not necessarily evidence of a poorly designed system, but may be evidence of a district’s unwillingness to take responsibility and use the tools available to them to take action. If you disagree with the findings of this investigation, we encourage you to contact the Sun Sentinel: danker@sun-sentinel.com and rgoudreau@sun-sentinel.com # # #