Florida state board sides with high-performing charter schools on appeal

The Florida Board of Education sided today with three proposed charter schools in Indian River and St. Lucie Counties, overturning attempts by local school boards to stop them from opening.

After the decisions, one board member rebuked the school districts for creating roadblocks to new schools, which would replicate existing high-performing Somerset Academy charter schools.

Suzanne D'Agresta argues for the Indian River School Board before the state Board of Education.
Suzanne D’Agresta argues for the Indian River School Board before the state Board of Education.

“I think it is of benefit to our state for us to be as supportive and welcoming as possible to anyone — whether a traditional or charter school — that is doing great things for our students,” Rebecca Fishman Lipsey told her fellow board members. Many of the objections to the proposed schools, she said, “seemed a lot like digging to find ways to potentially hold back someone from doing great things for kids.”

The school boards in Indian River and St. Lucie Counties last fall rebuffed the charter school network, which is affiliated with the management company Academica.

Citing recent decisions by state appellate courts that blocked proposed replications of high-performing charter schools, the districts argued the proposed schools would not “substantially” replicate existing high-performing charters in Somerset’s network.

Attorney Collette Papa said the proposed St. Lucie school and the Broward school it was trying to replicate shared the same “educational program design.” The extant and future school would both serve middle-school grades, which wasn’t true in the recent court cases.

Suzanne D’Agresta, an attorney for the Indian River school district, said she was concerned the proposed charters in her district would run afoul of a federal desegregation order, and did not offer detailed plans for recruiting black students.

Attorney Charles Gibson argues for Somerset Academies in a charter school appeal case.
Attorney Charles Gibson argues for Somerset Academies in a charter school appeal case.

“We cannot allow someone to come in and open a school without complying with those requirements,” she said.

D’Agresta said the South Miami school that was trying to replicate in Indian River had come under fire for enrolling an unusually low number of black students. But Somerset has since produced numbers showing that school was anomalous.

In legal documents, Somerset indicated its network as a whole serves “84% minority students, and 59% qualify for free and reduced lunch,” while the student population in Indian River County is majority-white. For that reason, the school said it was “confident in its ability to meet or exceed the requirements of the [desegregation] order and in fact is confident that Somerset’s statistics would be a positive addition.”

“We could teach them how to comply with their order,” Charles Gibson, an attorney for the charter school, told the state board.

While the school boards generally opposed the expansions, Shawn Frost, a school board member in Indian River County, cheered the state’s decision upholding the schools’ appeals.

The districts could still challenge the state board decision in a state appellate court.