Charter schools banned from countywide school fair as tensions rise

As Palm Beach County’s public school system showed off some of its most popular school programs to thousands of parents Tuesday, one segment of the public school sector was largely absent: charter schools.

For the first time in recent memory, charter school leaders were banned from the school district’s annual “Showcase of Schools” at the South Florida Fairgrounds. The ban came amid rising political tensions between charter schools and the county school board.

The event drew thousands of parents from throughout the county to learn about the school district’s more than 300 “choice” programs, which offer specialized classes in everything from auto repair and construction to music and Spanish language immersion.

In past years, the county’s roughly 50 charter schools have been invited to attend and showcase their schools. But this year the school district told charter leaders that they would be prohibited from presenting.

“We’ve been banned,” said Greg Hauptner, CEO of G-Star School of the Arts for Film, Animation and Performing Arts in Palm Springs. “They refuse to let us in. They’re denying us access to schoolchildren.”

The only charters welcomed this year are two so-called “conversion” charter schools — South Tech Academy and Inlet Grove High School — which are former district-run schools that operate in district facilities.

Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa called the ban a necessary step as the school district competes with charters for students.

“This is what the charter movement’s about – it’s about spurring competition,” Avossa said. “So if that’s the case, why would you invite the competition to your event?”

Since charters are privately managed, he added, allowing them to attend could give parents the mistaken impression that their programs had been vetted and endorsed by the school district.

“I don’t want folks to say ‘If they’re here, (the district) must be endorsing that school’s performance,” he said.

Avossa said the district has weighed banning charters from the event for a few years, but the decision comes at a time of rising tension between school district leaders and charter schools, which are publicly funded but operated by private organizations.

The school board has been in a nearly three-year legal battle to keep a new charter high school from opening west of Delray Beach. This past month, the state Supreme Court dealt a blow to the school board, letting stand a lower court decision that could force board members to let the school open.

A week later, board members hired an elite private law firm to sue the state about a new law requiring it to share with charters a portion of the money it raises for construction and maintenance, calling the law unconstitutional.

In August, district officials warned charter-school principals to “refrain from pledging any and all future revenues” from the new stream of cash and asked them to sign waivers promising not to do so. Angered by the tactic, many charter principals refused to sign the forms.

Board members have sought to counter accusations that they are “anti-charter.” In an op-ed article this past month, School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw wrote that “nothing could be further from the truth.”

“While our differences with charter schools are well-documented, those differences don’t tell the whole story,” he wrote. “We recognize the value of truly innovative charter schools — those schools that offer students a unique educational experience that they can’t find in traditional schools.”

In his article, Shaw cited G-Star School of the Arts as an example of an “innovative” charter school, one that he said “provides a one-of-a-kind curriculum for its students.”

Hauptner, G-Star’s leader, said that banning his school and other charter schools from Tuesday’s event denied them a chance to demonstrate their specialized programs to families who might otherwise be unfamiliar with the schools.

“It’s very important because that’s when people get to see who we are,” Hauptner said. “We talk with them, we give them brochures, we invite them to our open house. It’s 10,000 students that we don’t have access to. And it’s a very important type of fair for recruiting students.”

But while charter leaders say banning them might cripple their recruitment efforts, some argued that families will suffer as well.

“It seems like an unfair decision to make for parents who are expecting to go and see all the choices,” said Colleen Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Charter Schools USA, which operates the county’s six Renaissance charter schools.

“Now they are limited to seeing only the choices offered directly by the district,” she added. “All of these schools are public schools.”

Steve Epstein, principal of Renaissance Charter School at Palms West, said that in past years the event has been an opportunity to engage directly with curious families and answer their questions.

He said he never received an explanation from the school district about why charters were being turned away this year when “we’ve always been welcomed.”

“It’s a disappointment,” he said. “I’ve been there the past two years. It just seems like another attempt to divide.”

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