By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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Found in the rubble of Techworld is a clear message to parents, legislators, and regulators on the issue of charter schools: caveat emptor. This will be increasingly true as the charter movement grows from a relative blip on the radar to a significant part of the local educational landscape.
The laws that govern charter schools are designed to free them from many of the bureaucratic constraints of the traditional public schools, a notion with double-edged possibilities. On one hand it means that teachers like Juliet King and Lucy Golden can realize a dream to explore creative teaching methods in a way they believe they could not in a one-size-fits-all educational bureaucracy. The pair of former Miami-Dade teachers opened Coral Reef Montessori Academy three years ago in the kitchen of a South Miami-Dade church. The school currently has 175 students and a list of more than 300 waiting to get in. It also is widely acknowledged to be among the best elementary schools in the county, measured by standardized test scores and the unabashed enthusiasm of parents. "It's a lot of work," King allows. "We're here usually Christmas break, spring break, and weekends, but I wouldn't change it."
Testimonials like that were what legislators were thinking about in 1996, when they crafted the law permitting almost anyone who could write up a proposal and form a governing board to open a charter school. The law has some basic requirements such as the health, safety, and civil rights of students and personnel, adherence to open-government laws, and provision of an accounting of finances and student achievement. But most of the specifics regarding financial and academic accountability are left up to the individual school to negotiate with the school district that approves and monitors it. That's where details such as class size, teacher contracts, and educational goals are sketched out. The two entities sign a contract that outlines what the school promises to do, what the district will do, and what happens if one side or the other doesn't hold up its end.
The danger, of course, is that schools like Techworld are possible under such a deliberately broad law. As the pitfalls have emerged, the law often has been amended to add or subtract certain rights, responsibilities, and funding sources. The school district currently is lobbying legislators for more controls designed to protect public assets and school district liability, especially in the event that a charter goes under. At the same time charter-school advocates are lobbying for money to build their own schools and retain their precious autonomy from the school district. "This is a moving target, because what may be true today may be different in July," sighs Magaly Abrahante, the Schools of Choice administrator.
It hasn't been a cakewalk for the charter schools that have opened in Miami-Dade County. Some of them are barely making it and would go under if they were not backed by private organizations. Finding affordable space to lease or build a school, stretching a limited budget, and hiring and keeping competent teachers are challenges. In the early days, few school operators really knew what it took to get a good school up and running. "The biggest problem is, you have a lot of business people who are not strong on education, or they are strong on education but don't have a clue as to how to run a business," notes Coconut Grove-based Chancellor Academies chairman Octavio Visiedo. "One of the things that has evolved is the importance of negotiating -- and enforcing -- good contracts. I think the first ones left a lot to be desired, and school boards are getting better at it."
The Liberty City Charter School was one of those first schools that has had a rough ride. It was thrown together a couple of weeks after the charter-school law was passed in 1996 to gain political points for gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush. As a result its successes and failures were followed closely by the media (see "Schoolhouse Knocks,"August 24, 2000). But Liberty City certainly is not the only school that has had to juggle -- with varying degrees of competence -- the economic, political, and academic realities of being an independent business with public obligations.
Jonathan Hage was one of the local businessmen who helped Bush start the school in Liberty City; he then went on to found and head his own charter-school management company. Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA manages Ryder Elementary Charter School in the Doral area. Even ebullient promoter Hage estimates that it takes three to five years before a charter school can say it produces better students. "Anybody who tells you that a charter school opens up and immediately the kids shoot right to the top is either using a magic book they aren't sharing or they aren't telling the truth," Hage contends. But, he adds, it's almost time for an overall assessment of the academic accountability of these schools and, as he puts it, "let the chips fall where they may." Hage is betting his economic future that charter schools will turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to public education.