Schoolhouse Knocks

The Liberty City Charter School is difficult to find, nestled as it is between a middle school and I-95 among the tree-lined streets and neat ranch-style houses of the tiny city of El Portal. It presents an unassuming face, one two-story building with an entry flanked by fluted white columns, adjoining two nondescript one-story classroom buildings painted a modest cream color.

But in the realm of ideas and ideology, this school has been painted with the bright concentric circles of a target, in which the bull's-eye is the smiling, tanned visage of Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

When it opened in 1996, it was inundated with press coverage. Not only was it the first school founded under the state's new charter school law, but it was cofounded by Bush, whom everyone knew was going to run for governor in 1998. (By the 1999-2000 school year, there were 112 charter schools in the state.) Sure enough, once Bush declared his candidacy, the press was all over the school again, often at the candidate's invitation.

After his victory Bush withdrew from the school's governing board, ending his formal relationship with the experimental school. His experience there had given him a pedigree -- albeit brief -- in the realm of “school choice,” and he proceeded to propose policies that went further down the path of reinventing public education. His A+ Plan instituted a standardized test, the Florida Comprehensive Achievement Test (FCAT), the results of which would grade schools from A through F. Students from F schools would be eligible for the political conservative's favorite cure for public education's ills, vouchers.

When the students at Liberty City Charter School took the FCAT for the first time in 1999, they got a D. The enemies of school choice and of Jeb Bush (often the same people) howled at the inescapable irony. Chief among these detractors, the United Teachers of Dade union, renewed its calls for Liberty City to be closed down. In interviews with the Miami Herald, principal Katrina Wilson-Davis spoke of her disappointment but also of her determination to improve.

In June 1999 the Miami-Dade County School Board voted to renew Liberty City's charter for another five years. In the FCATs of this past year, student scores did improve. When the 2000-2001 school year begins on August 28, Liberty City Charter School will welcome sixth-graders for the first time.

Yet among South Florida educators, reviews of both Liberty City's present condition and its future prospects are decidedly mixed. Teachers-union leaders maintain that charter schools are not an educational panacea and say that Liberty City is among the weakest of the bunch. Though no one in the growing charter-school community will publicly cast stones at one of their own, privately some who work for and support charter schools describe Liberty City as a failure.

The combination of bad test scores, controversy surrounding teachers who helped students cheat on a standardized test in 1998, high teacher turnover, and political friction has left the school with a lousy reputation.

Some of Wilson-Davis's former employees say the principal herself, who had no previous administrative experience, is part of the problem. While Wilson-Davis chalks up the high teacher turnover (no fewer than six have left, from a faculty of roughly a dozen) to the school's growing pains, some claim the principal's shoddy management and vindictive nature drove away many qualified teachers. One former employee says Wilson-Davis's lackadaisical handling of the aforementioned cheating shook the confidence of many staffers. This ex-employee, Alicia Banuchi, also describes a kind of “don't ask, don't tell” policy when it came to corporal punishment at the school, a practice many of the students' parents favor but that is forbidden by school board rule.

But perhaps Wilson-Davis's lack of leadership was merely a symptom of the real problem: that Liberty City Charter School was founded solely for the purpose of making Jeb Bush more electable, and that once that goal was achieved, the school was destined to drift.

The ink on the charter-school law was still glistening in 1996 when Jeb Bush began his drive to be the state's pioneer in the charter-school field.

As defined by that statute, a charter school is a public school funded chiefly by public dollars, mostly in the form of the roughly $4800 allocated to each student in every public school. But by operating essentially as subcontractors to an individual school district, charter schools are not bound by the same rules for staffing, budget, curriculum, or bureaucracy as other public schools. Thus a charter school has far more flexibility in defining its mission and methods. This flexibility includes the choice not to use unionized teachers, which has incurred the enmity of teachers unions. Locally the UTD has supported some charter schools -- especially those that use union teachers -- and opposed others.