Dave Weber, Orlando Sentinel, May 1, 2011
Segregation in Florida’s charter schools is more by circumstance than design, say charter supporters. They argue that addressing the academic shortcomings of students often means devoting more attention to minorities.
They point to annual state reports showing that black and Hispanic students who attend charter schools are more likely to score higher on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests in reading, math and science than their counterparts in traditional public schools.
They highlight successful charter schools, such as the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) national chain that targets black and Hispanic students. The KIPP charter, which opened last fall in Jacksonville and has 96 percent black enrollment, recently received accolades from Gov. Rick Scott for helping minority students achieve academically.
That’s justification for grouping students by race or ethnicity in charter schools, supporters say.
But others are not sold on charters that are top-heavy by race or ethnicity. Some Orange County school-district officials are questioning the approach.
“It is not balanced,” said School Board member Christine Moore, who has raised concerns.
An Orlando Sentinel analysis shows that one in eight of the state’s 456 charter schools has enrollments 90 percent or more of a single race or ethnicity, with more than half of the charters topping the two-thirds mark. That’s a considerably higher proportion than in traditional public schools and adds to the existing number of out-of-balance schools where educators often struggle to improve student achievement.
Civil rights activists say creating schools with populations that are heavily Hispanic or African-American simply creates more campuses that lack money, have poorer-quality teachers and lower student improvement.
But black and Hispanic schools are not the only concerns Frankenberg [Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor at Penn State University] and others have. The explosion of charter schools, which are attended by nearly 6 percent of the state’s public-school students, has resulted in more predominantly white schools, too.
Researchers at Stanford University looked at charters in 15 states and the District of Columbia, and Florida’s did not show well. The 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes lists Florida among six “states that demonstrated lower than average charter school student growth than their peers in traditional schools.”
School district officials across the state complain that it is difficult to deny requests for a charter or pull the plug on failing schools because the charter movement is pushed by influential state leaders, including Scott and former Gov. Bush. His foundation is lobbying the Legislature to make the approval process easier for some charter schools.
The A-graded Lake Eola Charter is popular with more-affluent parents seeking education options in downtown Orlando. Its white enrollment of 65 percent puts it among the 15 “whitest” of Orange’s 235 schools, state data show. Five other of Orange County’s 28 charters are on that list of 15 whitest schools, too.
Legacy High Charter in Ocoee at 77 percent has the largest proportion of white students of any public school in Orange County. Hope elementary and middle charter, which shares its campus, is close behind at 69 percent. Nearby Ocoee High, which Legacy students otherwise might attend, is only 37 percent white.
Nearby, the tiny communities of Oakland and Belle Isle both started charters, predominantly white, that are alternatives to the more diverse local public schools. Belle Isle officials said a big concern was finding an alternative to Oak Ridge High School, which routinely receives D’s and F’s in state grading.
Nearby public schools feel the pinch from charters. Although Pine Castle Elementary, which serves Belle Isle, is an A school, it lost students to the new Cornerstone Charter, which opened at the Methodist church next door last fall.