Scrutiny of charter schools out the door

The following editorial was published in The Daily Sun on Feb 24, 2023.

OUR POSITION: The recent approval of a charter school for the Wellen Park community in North Port is an example of the lax oversight dictated by the Legislature.

Let’s start a charter school. A for-profit one for sure. There’s money to be made. And you don’t have to worry about local school board approval. It’s almost automatic.

That may sound comical or ridiculous, but it is the true state of education in Florida right now.

Legislation passed under Gov. Ron DeSantis takes much of the power to approve a charter school in the district away from local school boards.

Knowing that, we’re sure, had a lot to do with the Sarasota County School Board approving a charter school for Wellen Park this week. The decision was an about-face for the school board after it turned down the proposed charter school last year.

What changed? Nothing, except the growing influence of special interest money in the direction of our communities and the further abandonment of home rule.

The Florida Charter Educational Foundation Inc.a made the proposal and Charter Schools USA, which has started 154 schools in five states according to The Daily Sun story Thursday, will operate the for-profit charter school, starting in 2023-24 with an initial enrollment of 615 kindergarten through eighthgrade students.

Board members voted 4-1 to approve the charter with Tom Edwards opposing the decision.

Edwards said the new school will “not be the caliber of school that belongs here in Sarasota County.”

It was telling, however, that the four announced conservative members of the board had no qualms admitting they had reservations about the school and the company that will run it.

Bridget Ziegler, an outspoken supporter of school choice, said last June, when she voted against approval, she was “uncomfortable” with the financial impact the charter school may have.

“I am for school choice but I want options that make sense,” she said then.

The board felt it was backed into a corner by new rules and guidelines. Board member Karen Rose, who made the motion to approve the charter school, said she understood the district would lose any fight to not allow the school and would end up paying legal bills.

That is not a good reason to approve a school that school board members believe will not provide a quality education. And it’s a shame school boards across the state have been put in similar situations by the Legislature and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Let’s be clear. There are great charter schools.

Englewood SKY Academy, not far from Wellen Park, is an example of a successful charter.

SKY Academy has a waiting list for sixth- and seventh-graders and has grown from around 260 students to more than 330..

In a past Daily Sun story, teachers at SKY talked about students using an “old-school” method of writing down their grades and their progress and tracking their own data.

“We don’t want technology to be a challenge for families,” Principal John Bailey said. “By using the pen-and-paper old-school method, parents can see what their child is doing and if they had a good day or not and what assignments are coming up and when they are due. It’s about accountability.”

Columnist Joe Henderson wrote that the Washington Post reported 502 Florida charter schools received about $92 million in grants from the Department of Education between 2006 and 2014. More than 36% of those schools are closed now or never opened. Henderson and the Post reported those schools received $34.8 million in federal seed money.

There is money in opening a charter school. We’re concerned money can overwhelm the desire to provide a quality education.