By Michael E. Miller
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Minivans and SUVs line SW 64th Street, the quiet lane that runs past Snapper Creek Elementary School and into the heart of Kendall. The early evening is softly descending as several dozen parents shuffle in and sit at long rows of fold-up tables with attached benches in the "cafetorium." A few of them, wearing rumpled power suits, carry flyers brought home by their kids: "Please join us," the flyer signed by the school principal and the PTSA (Parent Teacher Student Association) president reads, "to explore the possibility of Snapper Creek Elementary becoming a conversion charter school."
This is a "revolutionary" idea -- the notion that parents and teachers could actually take their public school away from the education bureaucrats and run it themselves. But unlike a true revolution, where radical concepts are fomented by the disenfranchised, this idea is coming straight from the top. The meeting is sponsored by an unlikely alliance -- the powerful teachers union (United Teachers of Dade) and a venture capital-fueled charter school company (Chancellor Academies) run by retired Miami-Dade school bureaucrats.
What the parents didn't yet know on that early-September evening was that their school had been carefully chosen as the test market for the latest attempt to privatize public education. If it worked there, Snapper Creek would be the showroom model used to entice other schools to get with the program.
Quite possibly it could be the vanguard for the wholesale dismantling of the public school system.
A trim, mild-looking man in his late fifties named Clifford Herrman, the Snapper Creek principal, climbs to the stage at the front of the room, microphone in hand. For a moment he stands as still as the well-sprayed minibouffant on his head, surveying the slightly chaotic scene below him -- parents settling into their seats, squads of children galloping through the aisles.... One hand absently brushes invisible specks from his blue pants and white-collared, school logo-ed shirt. When he senses the time has come, he enunciates professionally: "Welcome to Snapper Creek." (Pause.) "A very special school." (Pause.) "What makes us so special is the parents and teachers!!"
Herrman stands in front of a large screen that reads, "Conversion to a Charter School: presented by United Teachers of Dade and Chancellor Academies." A half-dozen representatives of the union and management company smile on cue from their places around the projector. Herrman ticks off the reasons why he's in favor of Snapper Creek "going charter": smaller classes, more innovative teaching, less bureaucracy, et cetera. "We would have the flexibility to be creative in improving student learning," he beams, explaining that these things don't happen in regular schools, because they're tied to unwieldy systems burdened with regulations that demand cookie-cutter teaching methods. Happily many of these boring regs don't apply in charter schools, Herrman assures everyone. Charter schools have to comply with basic health, safety, and public-records laws, but since they're free public institutions run by independents, they are exempt from most other state education rules. Of course, Snapper is already a great place, Herrman exults, but it could be even more special if it were cut free of the bloated toad that Miami-Dade's 300-plus school system has become.
All it would take under state law for this to happen is for half the parents and teachers to vote to convert to a charter deal run by a governing board of their peers. "The bottom line is, is it possible to make things better at Snapper?" Herrman demands, in a fatherly tone that suggests it is.
From there a certain momentum carried the meeting along, as smoothly as a time-share condo pitch. Onstage a panel of "experts" including UTD rep Fred Wallace, Chancellor spokeswoman (and former Channel 10 education reporter) Vicki Frazier-Williams, Herrman, and three pro-conversion teachers laid out a bright future for the little school of less than 600 students. The union would take care of the teachers and the management company would take care of daily operations, while parents and teachers concentrated on the real work of making sure their kids got the best education possible. And since Herrman is retiring at the end of this year, Chancellor (now called Chancellor Beacon Academies after a recent merger with a Massachusetts-based education company) would hire him to stay on as principal! Quel surprise!
The catch was, the decision had to be made right away. If parents wanted to make the switch by next school year, they'd have to file an application with Miami-Dade County Public Schools in less than three weeks. It was then that parents began shifting in their seats and looking skeptical. Ed Lasher, an accountant and the father of a fifth-grader, stood up and asked how the school could afford to hire more teachers to reduce class size and all the other promised goodies. "I'm curious as to how the numbers will work," he inquired, wondering, additionally, where the money would come from for promised new classrooms and teachers, plus a fifteen percent management fee to the private firm.
Herrman assured everyone that all this could be worked out in the charter contract, which parents would help write over a six-month period. "I have no problem with a management fee if a company can come in and show us how to achieve smaller class sizes," he said, smiling. "Right now our school generates $3 million [in state and federal aid for students], but we only get $1.3 million back from the district." (Education funding is based on the number of students in each school. The school district takes a percentage of that money to pay for central services such as transportation, maintenance, administration, and food service.) Herrman explained to the parents that, as an independent charter school, Snapper Creek would get 95 percent of the money its students generate. Herrman further insisted that Chancellor would waive its fee if it can't deliver what it promises within the school's financial resources. (Interestingly, a close reading of the actual contract later drawn up by the company and UTD revealed that Chancellor would defer its fee, not waive it.) Diana Diaz de Arce, a Kendall mom, complained that she felt uncomfortable not having a contract in hand before being asked to vote. "[This is] like, ďBuy the house. You'll like it when you get it,'" she scoffed.