More than 500 charter schools were scheduled to open this fall in Florida and all of them fit into one of three categories.
Experts say no particular type of charter school is more successful than another, but each kind of school has particular strengths and weaknesses.
The original charter school model focused on local leaders forming an oversight board and spelling out the school’s mission, goals and methodology in a contract or charter. These schools range from non-profits founded by local activists, to schools set up by cities or towns to schools organized by those with professional expertise.
Florida has also had private, for-profit companies managing charter schools since state lawmakers first approved charter schools in 1996.
School districts are beginning to manage charter schools as well, offering a growing third option.
Michele Gill is an education professor at the University of Central Florida. She also helped launch the Galileo School for Gifted Learning in Sanford with several of her colleagues in August.
Like all charters, Galileo had to draw up a contract and win approval from the Seminole County school board. The school district has no say over the school’s curriculum or staff as long as the school meets the terms of its contract and school scores well on the state report card.
Non-profit charter schools often have motivated founders and a close connection to their communities, said Vickie Marble, principal at The Student Leadership Academy in Sarasota and a board member of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. Marble believes those schools can quickly adjust to what students, parents and the community wants.
The school can tailor its offerings in the summer, Marble said, based on what parents and students say during enrollment.
But Gill said some of those schools have struggled because of the complexity of running a school.
“A lot of charter schools are started by very well-meaning people who have no understanding of education,” Gill said. “The education bureaucracy is so complicated. It’s so hard. It’s so hard for those of us in education.”
For-profit companies provide that expertise for the schools they serve, said Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA. The company manages schools in four states with more than 25,000 students.
Often, Hage said, the company is called in because of poor-performing district schools.
“Residents are saying ‘We really would love to have a high-performing school otherwise we’re moving,'” Hage said. “We’ll actually hire the staff, we’ll implement the curriculum, we’ll pay the payroll, do the technology, train the teachers and operate the school.”
But those services come at a cost of an administrative fee.
“They can buy buildings; they can give the school loans; they can do all these great things,” said Gill, the college education professor. “On the other hand, less money is going to the kids and teachers because you’re paying all this off the top.”
With enrollment growing at non-profit and for-profit charter schools, public schools are getting into the game as well.
So far just one public school district, Miami-Dade, is managing a charter school. A school district can offer much of the same technical expertise as a for-profit company. Miami-Dade officials said they offer support and buildings, while allowing the school to set the curriculum and hire.
Hiring the district to manage a school could also reassure school board officials who must approve the school’s charter.
Palm Beach County and Polk County schools are considering the idea.
This post is part of a StateImpact Florida series examining charter schools. To read other charter school stories click here.