As of Tuesday, when the school district finalized its official enrollment counts, 6,037 students were enrolled in charter schools, a 16.5 percent increase from last school year. Public schools had 95,662 students enrolled — about a 1 percent drop from last school year.
The increase isn’t unexpected for charter school supporters, especially considering their growing popularity in Florida and Pinellas County.
Charter schools, which are publicly funded schools run by private companies, are seen by political conservatives as viable alternatives to struggling public school systems and by parents in low-income communities as alternatives to underperforming neighborhood schools.
Pinellas, which had 21 charter schools last school year, added four this year, as did Hillsborough County, which now has 51. Last school year Pasco County had only five charter schools but opened two more this school year. Pinellas County had 19 applications this year — the most the school district has ever had, according to Dot Clark, Pinellas County Schools’ coordinator of partnership schools.
Charter schools are required to follow the state curriculum and standards but have more freedom to enhance them than traditional public schools. For that reason, they’re often seen as private schools parents can send their students for free, said John Selover, principal of Newpoint Pinellas Academy in Clearwater, which added 64 middle school students to its 105 high school students this school year.
“Certain schools work for certain kids, and I think, with charters, the smaller class sizes and personalized learning is what really attracts students,” Selover said. “We’re also very tech-focused and can offer more internships with local companies and business partners.”
A big factor in driving the recent growth of charter schools is parents’ desire for greater choice in choosing which schools are best for their children, said Susan Ray, the principal at Academie Da Vinci Charter School for the Arts in Dunedin, a K-5 school with 248 students.
“We are creating a society of choice. We do it with our telephones, with our TV access, with our cars, and I think people are realizing more and more that they don’t have to go with what’s dictated to them at their neighborhood schools,” said Ray, a former public school teacher and administrator.
“We have a waiting list, so that tells you that parents are wanting to try something new.”
Just like any start-up business, though, a new charter school often faces its share of problems when building a school, curriculum and staff from scratch.
University Preparatory Academy, an elementary and middle school charter serving low-income children in South St. Petersburg, has been beset by problems since opening this school year — including staff turnover and student departures. While 481 students enrolled in the school, about 80 have withdrawn and returned to nearby Melrose, Maximo and Campbell Park elementaries — three of Pinellas County’s five “turnaround schools” in the midst of a state-mandated intervention after years of low standardized test scores, according to school district officials.
It may be no coincidence that the number of students Pinellas charter schools added this school year is nearly equal to the number leaving traditional public schools — public school enrollment dropped by 974 students, while charter schools gained 855. While charter schools operate under the jurisdiction of their local school districts, they are also in competition for students and state funding.
Not surprisingly, you won’t find local school officials cheering on the charter schools opening in their jurisdictions.
More charters in a school district means less money going to traditional public schools, said School Board member Rene Flowers.
For the last three years, traditional public schools have received no state funding for school maintenance and renovation projects, while charter schools in Pinellas County have received more than $200 million, according to the school district. Of the $18 million Pinellas County received for teacher salary increases from the state, about $3.7 million went to charter schools.
“I feel like it’s a business industry being pitted against a public-service industry, and everyone’s vying for those dollars,” Flowers said. “I’m going to be much more conscientious and much more diligent in looking at the applications that come before us and really check that their facilities are up and they are ready to open its doors — not halfway, not partially.”
However, if a charter school meets application requirements, there isn’t anything a school board can do to prevent it from opening, according to state law.
Pinellas school officials are taking the competition from charter schools seriously.
The school district, for example, has been considering offering more fundamental, career and “school-within-a-school” programs to become more competitive, said School Board member Linda Lerner.
School Board members have made charter school legislation a top priority for their lobbying efforts next year. They do not want to have to give part of future teacher raises to charter schools. They want class-size restrictions to apply evenly to public and charter schools and want the state to approve money for capital projects at traditional public schools, as well as charters. The school district also plans to oppose pending legislation that would standardize charter school applications — making it harder for School Boards to say “no” to new charter schools.
“It’s the new big thing that parents want to try, but once they get their children in those schools they see it’s not always what they were promised; and then come back to our county schools to get their students up to par,” Flowers said. “Why have a public school system if you’re not going to fully fund and fully support the system you have in place? You’re just taking our money and giving it to someone else that’s teaching the same group of kids and will have the same issues.”