What is a Charter School?
Parents are increasingly interested in the growing availability of charter schools. Many parents wonder whether their children would benefit from attending a charter school. Charter schools have become an integral part of Florida’s public school student population and their academic achievement has helped to boost the state’s overall academic record. But what exactly is a charter school?
Like other public schools, charter schools are publicly funded, tuition-free schools. But charter schools are operated by, or organized as, nonprofit organizations, institutions, universities, or a combination thereof. Operations are funded by the yearly per-pupil legislated state allocation, just as is the case for any traditional public school. Traditional public schools receive capital funding for facilities, buses, and technology from property taxes and community millage dollars. Most public charter schools, however, receive only about 10 percent of that amount in a per-pupil yearly allocation to fund their facilities, transportation, and technology. Additional funding is often obtained through grants and private donations.
When the charter education movement began, legislators expected charter schools to be established in churches and other facilities, making use of space that was not occupied during the week, rather than building dedicated facilities. However, as the movement has grown, the popularity of school choice in the form of charter education has drawn so much interest from parents that permanent facilities have become necessary.
Charter school supporters are advocating for millage dollars to be available for all public schools, including public charter schools. Until that happens, some charter schools may be housed in churches, shopping plazas, libraries, YMCAs, and similar places, while others have their own permanent facilities.
During the last eight years, capital outlay funding available to Florida’s charter schools has diminished significantly. The decrease has a major impact on adding new facilities, renovating old ones, paying for student transportation and pay for insurance premiums. Capital outlay funding is critical to Florida’s public charter schools because unlike district schools that have access to Capital Millage funding for facilities costs, charter schools cover the costs of their initial facilities out of their per pupil operating funds.
Originally, charters for schools were applied for and granted to individuals and groups wanting to open a single charter school with a unique idea for education in a given district. Those stand-alone charter schools may still be found, but many charter management companies have been formed to replicate a successful school idea in many districts or even in multiple states.
Management companies such as Charter Schools USA, Academica, Imagine, and Accelerated Learning Solutions operate at such a scale by providing things like curriculum, outfitted facilities, and teacher training in exchange for a large percentage of the per-student allocation dollars their schools receive.
A stand-alone school is responsible for academic success and sound fiscal management, and each charter school is under the supervision of its local school board. Charter schools build partnerships between students, teachers, and parents to drive academic excellence as a way of compensating for their reduced level of funding.
Charter schools also frequently specialize by focusing on niche categories such as students with special needs, graduation recovery, or college prep. Some are based on brain research, on science and technology, or on offering a smaller, more accountable environment. Many parents describe their child’s charter school as having a private-school feel but with public funding.
Because one of the original purposes of charter education was to add unique ideas to the educational landscape, that continues to be important to districts that approve charter applications. Parents should gather information from any charter school in which they may be interested in enrolling their children.
Although all public schools, including charter schools, must choose their offered courses from a state-approved course list, the way education is delivered may differ depending on the unique focus of each school.
Central Florida contains a variety of high-performing charter schools, as well as schools that meet the needs of special populations or that offer unique electives or extracurricular activities.
Four public charter schools in Florida ranked among the top 500 schools on the America’s Top High Schools 2015 list and four additional charter schools were among those “beating the odds” for low-income students. Four public charter schools in Florida ranked among the top 500 schools on the America’s Top High Schools 2015 list: St. Petersburg Collegiate Charter High School, placed No. 48 – St. Petersburg, FL Clark Advanced Learning Center, placed No. 123 – Stuart, FL Archimedean Upper Conservatory Charter School, placed No.203 – Miami, FL Edison Collegiate High School, placed No. 321 – Punta Gorda, FL. number of schools offer more accountability or a smaller, more personal learning environment for students. Many schools have an open enrollment period specific to them. State charter law governs how empty spaces are filled from year to year.
Charter school students must take annual state-mandated tests that determine advancement. Teachers in charter schools must be state-certified, just like teachers in traditional public schools. Compliance with state-mandated class size requirements also must be maintained. Every charter school is governed by its own independent governing board, whose members participate in mandatory training on subjects such as state charter law and procedures that determine how charter schools must be governed. Charter schools are independently audited yearly to ensure fiscal and procedural responsibility. They submit annual accountability reports to the Florida Department of Education and monthly financial reports to their local school districts. Many districts visit and audit each charter school in both the fall and the spring. Teachers are evaluated yearly according to state law.
The charter school movement is growing nationally, with 7 million children now attending charter schools. According to the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, www.floridacharterschools.org, the state now has more than 253,000 students enrolled in 651 public charter schools in 45 of its 67 school districts. That accounts for 9 percent of the Florida student population.