Florida needs another path for charter schools

Re-posted from a Tallahassee Democrat op-ed column.

By Lane Wright

Amendment 8 may not be on the ballot come November, but we can’t ignore the issue it was trying to address.

Charter schools have a legitimate place in our state. They’re written into our laws because they give families a public-school option — and hope — when their zoned school doesn’t meet their needs.

But they have to get approved by someone before charter school leaders can find a building, hire a principal and teachers, and let students come to learn. In Florida, that’s exclusively the job of local school boards.

Unfortunately, local school boards are becoming increasingly hostile to any charter school. That opposition isn’t motivated so much from the public — 44 percent of people support charters and only 35 percent oppose, according to a recent EducationNext poll. The real pressure comes from the politically powerful teachers unions.

And it isn’t just happening in Florida. Greg Richmond, president of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, says in 2013, local school boards approved 56 percent of charter schools, but by 2016, that number had dropped to 41 percent.

When your state is one of the 35 that offers an alternative path for charter schools to get authorized, that might not be a huge deal. But in Florida, your local school board is the only game in town. If they're not approving charter schools, nobody is.

In cases where the charter school appeals to the state and gets approved, it sets up an adversarial relationship between the school and the district that tried to block it.

That’s like working for a boss who was forced to hire you after doing everything in his power not to.

Leon and Palm Beach counties have had some of the most notable headlines recently as they’ve rejected charter school applications only to have the schools approved later by an appeal to the state.

I attended the meeting in May where the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Rocky Hanna bent over backwards to deny Tallahassee Classical School’s charter application, even though the school met every legal requirement.

I watched Hanna acknowledge his defeat and grudgingly welcome Tallahassee Classical in front of TV cameras earlier this month.

But just because he says it's welcome, doesn’t mean the district’s actions will match. The School Board can easily slow-walk the process of negotiating the contract and making the Tallahassee Classical official, which would cause delays in hiring teachers and staff, and making other arrangements to start school on time.

Delays will cost the school money. Since charters already get less money than traditional schools, that can put them in a serious financial pinch.

Nobody likes this system as it is now.

We need a change in Florida. Charter schools need an alternative path to getting a green light, not for the charter schools’ sake, but for the sake of the kids and families who need something different.

Lane Wright lives in Tallahassee with his wife and three kids. He’s a former press secretary to Gov. Rick Scott and currently works for a national education advocacy organization.