Why not let parents decide if charter schools are ‘innovative?’

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel recently reported, the Palm Beach County school board is considering new rules for charter schools.

Some appear to make sense.

The proposed changes, discussed at a workshop Wednesday, include conducting more thorough background checks on charter school applicants and requiring new charter schools to offer an innovative curriculum that fills a niche in the county. Charters also would have to comply with school district investigations, allow district officials access to their records and develop a plan for an orderly closure if they are unsuccessful.

Background checks and orderly closure procedures might help prevent uprooting students, losing taxpayer money, or allowing low-quality charter schools to proliferate. As the results of a recent CREDO study showed, Palm Beach County, and West Palm Beach in particular, don’t need more poor-performing charter operators.

It’s the requirement that charters be “innovative”  as determined by their main competitors, the school district  that gets a little dicey.

No one’s saying charter schools should not be innovative. The issue is who gets to decide what that means. As Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute has mused, the term “innovation,” as used in education circles, appears to connote “whatever you’re not doing at the moment, whatever got profiled recently in Education Week, or anything that involves an iPad.”

The Sun-Sentinel notes the Palm Beach school board aims to overcome this problem by consulting with national experts on a definition. It has already used such a requirement to turn down a proposed school by Charter Schools USA.

On Thursday, a Florida Senate panel aired the pitfalls of such a rule, when Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, proposed adding to state law a requirement that charters “meet a specific instructional need … which the local school district does not provide.”

As Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville noted, school boards operate traditional public school systems, and also are charged with deciding whether new competitors, in the form of charters, are allowed to open.

“To allow your competitor to be the arbiter whether you can move into the area is a scheme that went of business when the Soviet Union had their going-out-of-business sale,” said Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County school board member and superintendent. “I don’t think it worked.”

The effects of limiting options were laid bare in a January article in the Palm Beach Post about the district’s school choice programs.

The bottom line for parents finishing choice program applications this week: Most should be braced for rejection.

In the county’s 30 most popular choice programs, which range from theater and music magnets to environmental science and dual-language curriculums, the odds of being accepted through the choice lottery last year were less than 1 in 5, according to The Post’s analysis.

Even at less-exclusive programs, the odds are stacked against families trying to gain entry into their preferred school. Half of the county’s 192 choice programs had acceptance rates of 1 in 3 or less, according to The Post’s analysis. Just 38 of the 192 programs this year accepted more than half of their applicants.

With choice programs as popular as ever, school district officials expect these steep odds to continue.

Districts should be able to decide how charter schools can best meet the needs of their community, and they should be able to work with charter schools to coordinate how best to meet the needs of all their students.

But it’s hard for most districts to argue all those needs are being met now. If parents actively choose to enroll their children in charter schools, and in many cases provide their own transportation, they must feel those schools are offering something their district school isn’t. Otherwise the charters wouldn’t attract students.

Why not allow parents, rather than district officials, to decide whether new charters are offer something sufficiently innovative?

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at) sufs.org.