Districts, charter schools tangle over ‘replication’

If a charter school is doing well, its operator should be encouraged to open more schools.

That’s the idea behind charter school replication. It might seem simple, but defining “replication” is sometimes less simple than meets the eye. It’s triggered several under-the-radar legal battles between Florida school boards and charter operators.

A new one might be brewing in Polk County, where the school board this week rejected a charter school application after district officials questioned whether a proposed school would truly replicate a high-rated charter school in neighboring Hillsborough County.

Florida law makes it easier for charters labeled academically “high-performing” to replicate their model in a new location. School boards can only reject these schools if they find “clear and convincing evidence” that they don’t meet standards in state law. If a school board rejects a high-performing charter replication, the school can appeal directly to the state Board of Education.

In Polk, the school board decided the proposed charter school, governed by the Florida Charter Educational Foundation, didn’t replicate Hillsborough County’s Winthrop Charter School, which is governed by the Bay Area Charter Foundation.The two boards are both affiliated with the management company Charter Schools USA. According to the Lakeland Ledger, the two nonprofits say they’ve merged, but Polk district officials are skeptical.

Although the boards have the same members who meet at the same time, the committee hasn’t received any legal documentation of the merger, said Vicki Mace, [the school district’s] external consultant.

“So we don’t really have a high-performing charter applicant here,” Mace said. “There’s not a real good understanding of how this applicant or these boards operate. There is clear and convincing evidence that (the foundation) doesn’t have a high-performing charter to replicate.”

[Charter foundation attorney Levi] Williams told the School Board, “this is not that complicated.”

“We will prevail in court on this,” he added. “It will be expensive, it will be time consuming, but we will prevail.”

Polk has previously gone to court to stop a separate charter school replication. That case involved Renaissance Charter Schools, which wanted to replicate a middle school and open a new K-8 school. In that case, and a similar case out of Seminole County, the districts prevailed and judges criticized the state’s existing standards for high-performing charter school appeals.