CLEARWATER - Charter schools are on the rise in Florida, seen by some as a solution to chronically underperforming public schools.
But Florida's growing penchant for funneling public money into charter schools hasn't universally translated into better performance, according to a national study released last week.
Florida students in traditional public schools, on average, read at a higher level than those in charter schools and do just as well in math, according to the study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University, released Tuesday.
The findings come as interest in charter schools, publicly funded schools that are run by private companies, seems to be growing in the Tampa Bay area.
Hillsborough County, which has 47 charter schools, will add four more in August, as will Pinellas, which has 22 currently. Pasco County, with just five charter schools, will add two new ones.
In 1996, when charter schools began emerging in Florida, there were only five in the state, said Adam Miller, the charter schools director at the state Department of Education's Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice. This year, there were slightly fewer than 600 charter schools with more than 200,000 students, and the numbers have been swelling, especially in the last three to four years.
Those numbers reflect the friendly laws Florida has put in place to encourage the growth of charter schools; the support they enjoy among conservatives, many of whom are frustrated with the public school system; and their increasing popularity in low-income and minority communities, where parents are looking for alternatives to failing neighborhood schools.
Despite their growing popularity, though, Florida charter schools don't perform as well as charters in other states, according to the Stanford study.
While Florida charter-school students lagged behind their public-school counterparts in reading, charter-school students read at a higher level then public-school students in 16 of the areas the survey covered, which included 25 states, the District of Columbia and New York City and accounts for close to 95 percent of charter-school students nationwide. In some cases, charter-school students were reading at a significantly higher level.
The study, which compared students from similar demographic backgrounds who spend the same amount of time in the classroom, found that Florida charter-school students lose the equivalent of seven days of reading instructional time, compared to students in public schools. Nationally, though, that dynamic was reversed.
While conceding there is still work to be done with Florida charter schools, the Florida Department of Education noted that the Stanford study did note improved performance since the last survey in 2009, when researchers concluded "the effect for charter school students was significantly worse."
Florida wasn't the only state posting low scores in the study. In Nevada, for example, charter school students lost the equivalent of 108 days of reading instruction. And the study, which examines wide-ranging trends in the performance of charter and public school students, does not mean every Florida charter school is low-performing, state education officials stressed.
"Each school is different," said Miller. "Some of our charters have very high performance levels, and others that don't serve students need to be and can be closed."
Hillsborough County has five charter schools that have been issued 90-day notices saying they could be shut down because of D and F school grades. This year, Pinellas County Schools shut down Imagine School at St. Petersburg's middle school for low academic performance.
Overall, the study shows that there needs to be more accountability for charter schools in the state, said Bruce Proud, the executive director of the Pinellas County Teachers Association. There's little school districts can do to prevent charter schools from opening in their districts if they meet state requirements, he said.
"There's no accountability in terms of student progress, monitoring, to the extent that there is in the public schools," Proud said. "They aren't required to use the same measures, so there are schools that can continue without being successful for a period of time before they can even be questioned by the local school board about whether or not they're effective. Then it becomes a political issue that the public schools are trying to close this charter school, and it creates havoc for the parents because they have to find another place for their child."
Despite the poor performance of some institutions, charter schools still offer many benefits for the community, said Robert Haag, president and CEO of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. There will always be room for academic improvement, but Florida public schools need improvement as well, he said.
"If you are a parent and you're poor and you're stuck in an area where your kids have to go to a low-performing school, you may not have too many options," Haag said. "Parents want a choice, they want to get those kids into places where they know they can shine and they can thrive under a different umbrella. They want more freedom to be creative."
Charter schools in Florida and across the nation are serving a higher percentage of black, Hispanic and low-income students than traditional public schools, according to the Stanford study. In Florida, 36.4 percent of students enrolled in charter schools are Hispanic, 20.4 percent are black and 48.4 percent live in poverty, the study concluded. In 2009, 28.3 percent of students were Hispanic, 24.9 percent were black and 39 percent were in poverty.
In the Tampa Bay area, charters are also targeting audiences that may be the most academically needy. Pinellas County's new elementary and middle school charter, University Preparatory Academy in South St. Petersburg, is aimed at low-income minority children who live in areas where the surrounding schools are chronically low-performing. The closest schools to University Prep - Melrose, Maximo and Campbell Park elementaries - are three of Pinellas County's five "turnaround schools" and facing mandated intervention due to years of low scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
While public school officials often eye charter schools warily, because they redirect money that would otherwise go to the school district, some are trying to work with the growing number of charter schools in their jurisdictions.
In Hillsborough, school district officials have been trying to embrace the schools and collaborate with them on new techniques to improve performance. The administration is very supportive of school choice and holds frequent meetings and training sessions with the charters, said Jenna Hodgens, the Hillsborough County school district's supervisor of charter schools.
"There's a lot of collaboration; we don't have the typical feeling that you'll find in a lot of districts, where there's friction," Hodgens said. "We even created a charter advisory council where top leaders in charter schools and the school district regularly meet to solve these issues at the table."