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The other major factor that magnifies the potential impact of a municipal charter school movement is that the federal desegregation order under which the school district has operated for 31 years will no longer be in effect as of June. A federal judge declared last year that Miami-Dade had more or less achieved the goal of a single, equal-opportunity education system for all students (despite the ethnic group achievement gaps still horribly apparent to anyone who cares to look at the numbers). This could have a profound impact on the way school boundaries are drawn to include or exclude certain neighborhoods, and on magnet programs and other measures the system currently takes to promote a degree of ethnic balance. "When you try to look at that in terms of the whole is when you ... wonder what the effect will be," says Abrahante. "There are tremendous implications related to the purpose of public education."
Regardless of the uncertainty of this social alchemy, many state legislators see charter schools as a way to force school districts to reform their wicked, wasteful ways or watch as the crucial middle class abandons them almost entirely. "Despite all the rumors about Republicans trying to destroy public education, it couldn't be further from the truth," state Rep. Gaston Cantens told parents at Snapper Creek Elementary. "[But the system] should not have a monopoly." State Rep. Ralph Arza, a teacher and former football coach at Miami Senior High, echoed the sentiment, urging parents to "cut off a lot of the bureaucracy and send that money to the schools. It should be parents, teachers, and that's it, a neighborhood school."
Dan Gelber, a first-term Democrat whose district includes parts of Miami Beach, doesn't agree with his Republican colleagues on a lot of issues, especially on how little they are willing to spend on public education -- about $5500 per year on average. (Florida spends less per student than 37 other states and ranks 49th in national high school graduation rates.) But like them, he believes that the school bureaucracy has gotten so unwieldy that it's lost touch with the needs of individual communities.
So he suggested that a group of parents, children's organizations, and the city create a study group to explore the idea of converting all the elementary and middle schools and Miami Beach High (almost 10,000 kids in all) into a charter school system. "In the Fifties Miami Beach was its own school system, and we were probably the finest in the state," Gelber asserts. "I'm not so sure it's a great idea, but it's a big idea. I wanted to bring citizens together to scrutinize the implications."
"On the Beach our schools are not broken, but we are interested in doing more," offers Karen Rivo, a Beach PTSA mom involved in Gelber's study experiment. "We are very opposed to elitism, which is why we're looking at the whole [system of Beach schools]. It may be that we can focus on a lot of different innovations without leaving the school system."
The Miami Beach effort, with its many implications for the entire school district, could become the model for other communities to force change in their schools. Even if the Beach decides not to go for it, it is likely to get concessions from a school district that would hate to lose the Beach's good schools, not to mention the money and political power that go with them.
But UTD's Mann is concerned that if too many municipalities get the same idea, it could break the current school system into many separate, unequal ones. "When you tear down a [school] district, it's similar to the county dividing into municipalities with the wealthy people on one side and the poor on the other," she opines. "If you divide this district down, it will be rich districts and poor districts. We don't want that to happen. It's a real fear. That's why part of me doesn't like charters."
The Wall Street Factor
The problem with the vision of the "return of the little red schoolhouse" being pushed by would-be charter reformers is that it's being marketed by large management companies with aspirations to operate dozens to hundreds of schools. And in Miami it's the subject of a three-way power struggle among the school board, the state legislature, and the teachers union.
And the profiteers are not always marketing to the white middle class. On several South Florida radio and television stations for the past several months, an organization called the Black Alliance for Educational Options has been running a series of ads pushing private-school vouchers and charter schools. But a closer look reveals that the BAEO is hardly a grassroots local group. A report by the People for the American Way Foundation reveals it to be a national organization funded largely by right-wing donors who favor not only the privatization of education but such anti-minority efforts as the abolishment of affirmative-action programs.
Denise Perry, a member of Power University and Parents in Action, a black and Hispanic group that agitates for better education for Miami's poorer communities, finds the ads deceptive and disturbing. "We started looking into where the money's coming from, and it's coming from the Bell Curve people [the book The Bell Curve proposes that blacks are on the bottom rung of American society because they are less intelligent than whites]," Perry says dismissively. "It's coming from people with real business connections [to private education companies]. They're pimping black people. We're very angry about it. It's gross."