TALLAHASSEE (CBS4)- Florida school districts are flooded with applications for new charter schools, motivated by several new laws that make it easier to start traditional and virtual charters.
Nearly 100 more new charter school applications have been filed for the 2012-13 school year than were filed at the same time last year, a 38 percent increase, according to statistics from the Department of Education.
Statewide, school districts have received 348 charter school applications. Last year, districts received 252 applications. A charter doesn’t get automatic approval; the district must approve charter applications, the News Service of Florida reported.
Driving the increase are two new laws passed by the Florida Legislature this year that promote charter school expansion.
One law makes it easier for existing charter operators with high school grades to open new schools or expand grade levels. The other law creates “virtual” charters, in which a charter school can offer online courses.
Richard Page, the vice president of development for Florida-based Charter Schools USA, said the popularity of charter schools among parents and the new laws are driving interest in opening them.
“It’s a combination of factors,” Page said. “One, there is continued demand for school choice, I think there has been an increased awareness of school choice over the last few years.”
He added that school operators view Florida as a charter-friendly state. “The state legislation that authorizes charter schools is conducive for charter schools to operate in Florida compared to other states,” Page said.
Page said the law incentivizes high-performing charter schools to open up new schools. This doesn’t prevent, however, other charter school operators from submitting applications.
Charter schools are a hybrid between public schools and private schools. They are supported with taxpayer dollars, but are run by private and sometimes for-profit entities. Charters fall under the oversight of school districts, but don’t have to meet the same rules and regulations as traditional public schools.
For instance, charters can use different curriculum, salary schedules and use non-traditional school buildings.
In Florida, charters receive enrollment-based funding through the state funding formula. But they also pay a small fee to school districts for providing charter oversight.
Charter schools have been promoted in recent years by an increasingly conservative Florida Legislature that has championed charters as part of a buffet of “school choice” that allows parents to pick the best school type for their child. Charter schools are often praised for their think-outside-the-box mentality.
Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, the sponsor of the charter school expansion bill, called the increase a “good thing,” saying it will help get more kids into charters that were previously on waiting lists.
“If they are doing it because of the legislation, that means they are high-quality charter schools,” Thrasher said. “Charter schools are public schools that don’t have all the restrictions. To the extent they are performing well, we ought to reward them.”
But critics of the charter school movement say it puts traditional public schools at a disadvantage and essentially privatizes education, giving taxpayer dollars to private interests.
A new law has also contributed to a surge in first-time applications for “virtual” charter schools.
The new law permits a charter school to offer full-time virtual instruction for grades K-12. Charter Schools USA, for example, submitted 20 new charter applications in Florida, and 13 were for traditional bricks-and-mortar schools. Page said the idea is to offer “blended” learning with some virtual instruction and some regular instruction.
New charter applications may include charters that currently exist that want to add on a full-time virtual component or add new school grades. The new laws made it easier for charters to do either one.
To gain approval from a district, a virtual charter school must use one of the five state-approved virtual instruction providers. That list includes: Florida Virtual School, Advanced Academies, Educational Options, Florida Connections Academy, K12 Florida and the National Network of Digital Schools.
Florida has been aggressive in offering virtual education to students, with a new mandate that all public high school students take a virtual class prior to graduation and a requirement that all districts offer virtual education.
Christopher McGuire, the principal of Broward Virtual School, said there are economic incentives to charters offering blended learning over full-time virtual education. A school is paid based on course completion for full-time virtual students, he said, versus being paid by enrollment if the student is also taking traditional courses.
McGuire called virtual learning a “great alternative for kids,” but said the new legislation is pushing through new kinds of virtual programs at a pace that is causing confusion for parents.
“Parents should have more choice,” McGuire said. “But now you have choices within the choices. All we really are trying to do here is educate kids.”
Some districts received much higher numbers of new charter school applications than others.
In Miami-Dade County, the district received 93 new charter applications, an 82 percent increase from 51 applications the year before.
Some were clearly “virtual” charter schools, with names such as “Pinecrest Virtual Charter School” and “Somerset Virtual Academy.”
Just because a charter submits an application doesn’t mean it will get approval.
Data provided by the Miami-Dade County School District that in the past two years, most charter school applications were withdrawn or denied. Last year, 14 new charters were approved out of 51.
Miami-Dade has 109 charter schools already in operation.
In Palm Beach, the number of new charter school applications jumped by 10, up to 36 new applications.
Juanita Edwards, the director of charter schools for Palm Beach County, said five of those applications were for purely virtual charter schools that would not offer traditional courses.
Broward County also saw a large jump this year. The district said it received 53 charter school applications, up from 32 last year. Of the 32 that applied last year, about half were approved.
Duval County also reported a large jump. The district said it received 15 charter applications this year, a 50 percent increase from the 10 applications the district received last year.
“The 15 applications this year would be the largest we have ever received,” said Duval County Schools spokeswoman Jill Johnson.