In his recent op-ed (“School choice works — and it will work for MacDill AFB,” Other Views, July 17), Richard Page, executive vice president of Charter Schools USA, a large, multi-state, for-profit charter school development and management corporation, challenged the Hillsborough County School Board’s unanimous rejection of their attempt to open a franchised school at MacDill Air Force Base. True to his corporate dedication to private profit rather than public education, Page’s piece was more advertising than informed discussion. Most obvious is his failure to address the primary reason the application was rejected, which was its lack of a local nonprofit board that would provide arm’s length oversight of the for-profit management company.
The Hillsborough school district’s attorney described Charter Schools USA’s proposed board as “a fig leaf of a not-for-profit.” The proposed board had no local representatives, was chaired by Ken Haiko, who chairs more than three dozen of Charter Schools USA’s boards across the state, and, in spite of overseeing other Charter Schools USA schools in Hillsborough County, has rarely met here.
Instead, Page claimed Hillsborough County “blocked” the application because of the poor performance of one of their three schools in the county, Woodmont. Although not the key reason for rejecting the application, the fact that Woodmont received an F in 2013 should be troubling to us all. Page praises Woodmont’s two-grade improvement to a C in 2014 and claims the school has “made strong progress since opening.” Woodmont received a D its first year, then dropped to an F and is now a C. I would call that unpredictable performance rather than “strong progress.”
In addition, if you look at student FCAT scores you see the percentage of students who are “proficient” in reading, math, writing and science is well below 50 percent, and far below those for the Hillsborough school district as a whole. It is the improvement over the scores from last year, and not the proficiency itself, that has earned Woodmont the jump.
Page goes on to chastise the Hillsborough school district for having 23 D’s and 7 F’s. None of us are happy about these numbers, but keep in mind that Charter Schools USA has three schools in Hillsborough County while there are 224 traditional public schools. The 7 F schools represent less than 3 percent of the traditional public schools.
At the other end of the continuum, 40 percent of Hillsborough’s traditional public schools earned A’s. This was accomplished while serving more of the hard-to-educate students (e.g., those living in poverty and those who are categorized as having special needs) than Charter Schools USA.
The mission of charter schools as conceived in the 1990s was for local groups of parents, educators and community leaders to propose innovative approaches to educate students who were not being served well by the public school system. If successful, these innovations were to be integrated into the public system. Across the country, including in Hillsborough County, charter schools have accomplished amazing results. In fact, 13 of Hillsborough’s 33 graded charters received A’s this year.
One of the major determinants of such impressive results is the percentage of their expenditures that go to “instruction,” including teacher salaries. Many of the successful charters spend up to 60 percent on “instruction,” according to a statewide study of charter schools by the Florida League of Women Voters. Recently, however, the $9 billion education “industry” has attracted profit-seeking chains, such as Charter Schools USA, that are enticed by the revenue stream of taxpayer education dollars that are touted to investors as making the charter industry “recession proof.”
Is there a plan to expand to military bases across the state? The country? If so, what is the special need of military children? In a democracy with a “citizen army,” why would we want to segregate the children into a separate, privatized school system?
There already is a traditional public school, Tinker Elementary, on MacDill Air Force Base that has received A’s for years. In addition, the district offered to expand Monroe to K-8 to accommodate off-base children. The fact that, as Charter Schools USA’s Page points out, MacDill children attend 74 schools, shows there is already a great deal of residential and educational choice in Hillsborough. Our military families deserve the same quality public education that all our children do. They are fighting for the democracy for which public education provides the very foundation.
Robin R. Jones is a member of the League of Women Voters of Hillsborough County Charter School Study Committee.