By Julie Delegal
Florida’s schools have been graded since FCAT began under Gov. Lawton Chiles in 1998. There weren’t any consequences for the first few years — no “turnaround” lists, no teacher bonuses — as schools were given the chance to adjust to the brand new test.
Standards of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test have been ramped up a few times over the past 15 years, and school scores have been tweaked accordingly. The “safety net,” which prevents a school’s grade from falling more than one letter over the course of the year, is in effect again for 2014 scores.
This year, Jacksonville’s first round of grades brings good news and bad news. Yes, Duval County’s elementary and middle schools have earned more A’s, but they’ve also earned more F’s — 22 of them, total. And six of those F’s belong to charter schools.
Charter schools are hybrid entities. Private educational groups run charter schools using public money. The private educators, in turn, pay leases to the property owners and/or fees to the franchise.
An example is Charter Schools USA. In a profile of its CEO, Jonathan Hage, Florida Trend magazine reports that once a charter school is on its feet, CSUSA takes roughly 10 percent of the per-pupil tax dollars that come through the door. In Florida, charter schools receive about two-thirds of the per pupil funds that traditional schools receive. The schools collect capital improvement funds from the state for site-related needs, and they don’t pay property taxes, even though the real estate sites are privately owned assets.
Charter schools were supposed to be the superheroes of education. “Give parents a choice,” proponents said. “Loosen up on the regulations. Let us innovate and show you what we can do; we’ll bring those innovations to the public school classroom.”
In Jacksonville, with its areas of almost intractable poverty, it’s easier said than done. While some school-grade calculations are still pending, 32percent of Jacksonville’s elementary and middle charter schools graded so far this year have earned F’s.* By contrast, so far, only 12.5 percent of Duval’s traditional public schools scored F’s this year. Speaking in proportionate terms, and without accounting for sample sizes, Jacksonville’s charter schools, as a district, have 2 ½ times the number of failing schools than do our traditional-district schools.
We are paying for it dearly — not only in terms of student failure, but also in terms of diffused resources. Test-based accountability is a little too high-stakes in Jacksonville as compared to our nearest-peer district, Hillsborough. (Hillsborough County is exempt from the provisions that count test-scores as 50 percent of teachers’ evaluations.) Nevertheless, standards-based accountability permits educators to zero-in on students’ specific academic needs in order to better serve them.
That’s harder to do, though, when privatization is draining precious dollars from traditional schools, whose scale operational costs remain roughly the same despite losing students.
Superintendent Nikolai Vitti told the Jacksonville Times Union that the district’s traditional schools lost $70 million in pupil funds last year due to privatization — charter schools, voucher schools, and other “contract” schools.
Despite the financial crunch, though, Duval’s traditional district schools outperformed charters on the “A” end of the grading scale, too. So far, 23percent of our traditional district elementary and middle schools earned “A” grades, compared to just 10 percent of Duval’s charter schools. Jacksonville’s traditional public schools also beat charters on passing grades, that is, the percentage of schools scoring A’s, B’s, and C’s: Sixty-six percent of graded traditional schools “passed” so far compared to only 58 percent of charters.
The idea that charter school operators should make a profit by providing children a better educational experience should offend no one. The fact that the numbers say they’re not doing a better job, while they’re draining away precious public resources, should alarm everyone.
* All figures were retrieved on July 17 from Jacksonville Public Education Fund’s interactive website. Only already-graded schools were included.
Julie Delegal, a lifelong Floridian, is a contributing writer for Jacksonville’s Folio Weekly and a ContextFlorida columnist.