If Michele Gill learned anything from helping open a Seminole County charter school this fall it’s this: Charter schools cannot do anything they want.
Despite some public perceptions, Gill said opening Galileo School for Gifted Learning has meant navigating a complicated network of state and federal regulations. Then school leaders have to make sure the local school board is happy with the plan, she said.
Gill is an education professor at the University of Central Florida and opened the school with UCF colleagues.
Charter schools do have some big advantages, said Gill, but not as many as most people believe.
“These are expensive and difficult things to do and they’re very hard for a charter school to take care of,” she said. “What I have found out personally is they are quite restrictive. They are way more restrictive than a private school would be.
StateImpact Florida has compiled a list of what charter school advocates said are the five most-common misconceptions about the rules of charter schools. And taking a page from the Pulitzer Prize-winning PoltiFact, we apply degrees of accuracy to each.
1. Charter School students don’t have to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test
“Pants on Fire”
This one is not true at all.
Charter schools are public schools and subject to nearly all the same accountability rules as district schools, said Michael Kooi, who directs the Florida Department of Education’s school choice efforts. Only private school students do not have to take the FCAT, Kooi said.
Annual FCAT results figure into charter schools’ grade in state evaluations, just as with district schools. Charter schools’ curriculum must also adhere to state standards.
Charter schools are free from some state regulations, Kooi said, including a different standard for calculating class sizes and looser building codes. But most rules still apply, such as required 90-minute blocks for reading study.
2. Local school districts get no say
This is mostly true once a charter school is up and running.
School boards have no say over administration, personnel or what the school is teaching. A school district’s grade includes the charter schools within its boundaries, and school boards have complained they are graded on something over which they have little control.
“That is a concern that they are not distinctly a member of a school district,” said Doretha Edgecomb, chairwoman of the Hillsborough County school board.
However, school boards must review a charter’s application and can accept or deny the school. School boards can also determine the length of a charter school’s contract. Many are granted longer-term contracts, but with required annual reviews.
The school board is also responsible for ensuring charter schools are meeting the terms of their contract and remain on proper financial footing. The board can close poorly performing or insolvent schools.
A state law passed earlier this year requires school district fast-track applications for so-called high performing charter schools. Those are schools which have earned at least two A’s and a B on its their report card the previous three years as well as receiving clean audits.
Pasco County is weighing a challenge to the law because of a pending application.
3. Charter schools can hire any teacher they want
Unlike private schools, charter school must hire state-certified teachers.
So even though charters can quickly change their course offerings, they still need qualified teachers to instruct those classes.
“We’re having a very hard time, for example, finding foreign language teachers,” said Galileo’s Gill. “At a private school you can hire anybody.”
Charters do enjoy a significant advantage over district schools when making personnel decisions: No unions.
District schools must negotiate pay with their teachers’ unions and the cost of benefits such as health insurance and pensions are set by the state. Charter schools are free to make those decisions themselves, limited only by what the labor market will accept.
The absence of unions means charter schools are also free to hire and remove teachers at the school’s choosing.
4. Charter schools only have to accept the best and brightest.
State law requires charter schools to accept any student who applies. If a school receives more applications than it has capacity, the school must hold a lottery to determine which students enroll.
In short, charter schools are not allowed to choose which students they accept.
However, the best and brightest students may be “self-selecting” themselves for charter schools Charter school advocates acknowledge that motivated students – and especially motivated parents – are more likely to be interested in charter schools.
Gill notes that charter schools are often more difficult to get to than a neighborhood district school. Many do not offer athletics or have the money for a well-stocked library or other traditional amenities.
Parents must put in time and research to choose the proper school, she said.
“Parents have to be very, very savvy to look at the data,” she said. “Charter schools are harder to get to or don’t have as many resources.”
Gill admits that charter schools are competing for students and that can cause tension with both district schools and other charter schools.
5. Nothing happens to bad charter schools.
It’s far easier to close a charter school than a district school, supporters say.
More than 60 charter schools have been closed in Florida since they were approved by law in 1996, said Kooi, with the state Department of Education. Florida included the detail in its application for a $700 million federal grant to prove the state enforces its accountability measures.
“In Florida,” said Kooi, “we’re not afraid to close failing charter schools.”