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Schools that score D's and F's get a little more money initially to improve student performance. But if the numbers don't go up, the state will take the money it was paying the school to teach each student and offer it as a voucher to parents who want to put their children in private schools.
This idea of giving public money to unregulated private schools horrifies many advocates of public education and has galvanized most teachers unions to fight it. But whatever philosophical objections to vouchers the local UTD may have, it is also motivated in a practical sense by the realization that its base of money and power would be diminished by a mass exodus of students from the public schools because unions are not welcome in private schools. Politically savvy Pat Tornillo saw this with the advent of Governor Bush's education plans and quickly adjusted his thinking to embrace the compromise -- charter schools. So, UTD executive Merri Mann explains, the union has taken the unprecedented step of cutting deals with charter school companies. "What we want out of it is to maintain our membership within charter schools so we can negotiate for them," she says. "We don't think these schools should be run on the backs of teachers."
And so charter schools, initially pitched as a way for grassroots neighborhood groups to run their own small public schools free from bureaucracy, have multiplied into the hundreds across the state. But as they've grown in popularity, most of their grassroots elements have been replaced by a new industry of national management companies, many fueled by venture capital and marketing hype reminiscent of the late-Nineties dot-com boom.
The company marketers, savvy bunch that they are, have tapped into a deep wellspring of discontent motivating more and more Miami-Dade neighborhoods to withdraw from the greater, increasingly diverse and problematic, community. It's no coincidence that the same areas at the forefront of the incorporation trend (which will eventually make a city of every square foot of the county) are also the ones looking to open charter schools in their neighborhoods.
It's also unsurprising that many of these neighborhoods tend to represent some of the more affluent areas of the county. Aventura is building an elementary charter school to be run by Charter Schools USA in 2003. Miami Shores will open a high school in 2003 to be run by Chancellor Beacon Academies. The chamber of commerce in Coral Gables is also planning for a new charter school. Miami Beach, with the assistance of state Rep. Dan Gelber's office, is exploring the idea of turning allthe schools on the Beach into charter schools, thereby creating a separate education system.
UTD's Merri Mann says there is a real danger that this trend could result in a fragmentation of local education that will ultimately hurt the poorest and neediest. "The reality is, Miami Shores is building a high school because they don't want their kids going to [majority black and Haitian] Edison High, and they don't want to pay for private school," she observes. "I don't want to see communities organize to segregate kids."
Charter schools, management companies, municipalities, and school districts have all lobbied the state legislature for changes in the law that encourages the proliferation of the new facilities in middle-class communities. Last year the state gave municipalities the right to limit enrollment in city-run schools to their residents.
Brian Peterson is an FIU history professor who writes a daily newsletter about Miami's education woes, in particular criticizing the state of the inner-city schools. He favors charter schools because they drive up the overall quality of public education by forcing the school system to compete for students.
But Peterson believes the enrollment-limitation law could be disastrous to the goal of providing equal access to a good education, the main tenet of the 30-year-old desegregation movement. "Unless the law is changed, letting all students go to any school, there will be resegregation," he contends. School district administrator Magaly Abrahante agrees. "That's a very serious concern, and it's something I am not happy about," she remarks. "We have to make sure we don't lose the gains we made [with desegregation]."
The City of Aventura engaged lobbyist Ron Book to help get that limiting provision, as well as another giving municipalities the power to take private land within its borders for a school site through eminent domain. Book rejects the notion that giving cities the option to keep kids from other parts of the county out of city charter schools could result in resegregation. "That is clearly not the goal," he argues. "If that occurs, the legislative leaders will quickly move in and solve that problem." Jonathan Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, which will run the school for Aventura, admits that the potential for creating homogenous schools is there but no more so than under the current system. "It's that way to a degree in the public schools already," he ruminates. "If you go to Opa-locka or to Pinecrest, how ethnically balanced are those schools? There's the potential of charter schools to go the other way, to break down [situations] where all the white kids go to private schools and black kids go to public schools."