Broward County school board rejects charter school collaboration plan

One of the three Florida school districts in line to receive $3.3 million to recruit high-achieving charter schools into disadvantaged neighborhoods appears to be pulling away from the initiative.

Broward County School Board members decided Tuesday to tell the state, as one member put it, “thanks but no thanks.”

District Superintendent Robert Runcie said the grants were part of a state effort to tackle the tricky problem of charter school quality.

Among other things, they would have allowed districts to hire more staff to help oversee the charters they authorize.

Broward, Florida’s second-largest school district, indicated in grant documents that its charter school office has a staff of seven, charged with keeping tabs on nearly 100 charter schools — more, Runcie has pointed out, than there are in the entire state of New Jersey.

The grant would also have allowed the district to use charters to meet its own goals, rather than passively awaiting applications from operators who might be loathe to target areas with the greatest needs. The new, proactive approach called for seeking competitive proposals from charter organizations with strong track records, directing them toward an academically undeserved area west of Fort Lauderdale, and ensuring they cultivated ties with the surrounding community.

“This is a grant that affords us enormous flexibility to focus on a primary goal of improving student achievement in low-performing schools in the district — chronically low-performing schools where we’ve struggled in the past,” Runcie said.

School Board members, however, did not see it what way. There was no vote on the plan after Tuesday’s two-hour workshop, because the board needed consensus to proceed, and most members made clear that they opposed the idea.

One objection, they stressed over and over again, was the spread of low-quality charters that under-perform, and in the worst cases, shut down soon after they open — problems the grant proposal was intended to help address, and which board members repeatedly blamed on a lack of state “regulation” of charter schools.

“I am 100 percent not in favor of this,” board member Laurie Rich Levinson said of accepting the grant. “We need to focus on getting laws in place that deal with little accountability and no regulation.”

Fear of increased calls for regulation is one reason that, this year, many Florida charter school advocates looking for ways to improve the quality of their sector.

The state Department of Education awarded charter collaboration grants to Broward, Miami-Dade and Duval Counties. In addition to attracting high-profile charter operators like KIPP or Aspire into Florida’s inner cities, the grants were intended to promote “knowledge transfers” between the charters and district-run schools.

Department spokeswoman Claudia Claussen said in an email that Broward has yet to tell the state it will pull out of the grant initiative. If it does so, the department would steer those resources to districts that remain “committed to this project.” That might involve sending more funds to the two remaining districts, or inviting others to participate.

In Broward, district staff had drawn up a plan to recruit proven charter school operators to take over existing charters whose poor performance that required “corrective action.” That approach would have allayed concerns recruiting new charter school operators effort would lead to takeovers of existing district schools, something several board members said they opposed.

The idea of bringing in new charter organizations to upgrade existing charter-school seats drew its own set of objections.

“The responsibility falls on these schools and these governing boards,” said board member Patricia Good. “This board has zero, zero control on how they function. If we did, maybe these schools wouldn’t be in the situation that they’re in.”

Supporters of the grant, though they appeared to be the minority on the board, said it would have begun to address the very problems with charter schools that other school board members and local media have raised.

When it became clear the board wanted to turn the money away, Rosalind Osgood, whose school board district includes the area the grant would have targeted, called for “immediate” action to tackle problems with low-performing charter schools.

“At the end of the day, it’s our responsibility to educate the children in Broward County,” she said. “I don’t want to spend another year or another five or six months without some type of way of addressing that, regardless of what the state does.”