Palm Beach County approves new restrictions on charter schools


Escalating their battle against the expansion of charter schools, Palm Beach County School Board members on Wednesday gave final approval to several new restrictions on charters, including ones that would prohibit them near other public schools and require them to prove they are “innovative.”

Charter school advocates called the new rules illegal, saying that state law bars county school boards from imposing their own requirements on charters, which are publicly funded but privately run.

But school board members have made clear in recent months their desire to do more to control when and where charter schools open and how they serve students.

“We have charter schools that can locate right next to a regular school and put it out of business,” School Board Chairman Chuck Shaw said.

More students are leaving traditional public schools for charters, an exodus that school administrators blame for hollowing out many campuses and squeezing school budgets. This year, roughly 19,200 students attend charter schools countywide, up from 7,700 in 2010. Next year, school district officials project the number of charter students could rise as high as 24,000.

Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri, who has led the rhetorical push to clamp down on charters, singled out the charter school chains, particularly Charter Schools USA, which operates six schools in the county under the Renaissance franchise.

“The large charter chains are doing nothing to provide innovative education opportunities for our children,” Barbieri said.

A statewide charter school association said the new rules violate a state law that bars county school boards from imposing their own requirements on charters.

“We feel that the Palm Beach school district is violating state statutes,” said Robert Haag, president of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. “We feel the District should work with charter schools and state lawmakers to address their concerns, not create their own rules for charter schools.”

The new rules include three provisions that drew the ire of charter school advocates:

Charter schools cannot open in the “vicinity” of a traditional public school with the same grade levels and programs. Vicinity is not defined.

Charter schools must prove they are “innovative.” Innovative is defined as “introducing or using new ideas or methods or having new ideas about how learning methods can be performed.”

A majority of the members of a charter school’s board of directors must be county residents.

Board members complain that charter schools often set up shop down the road from public schools in an effort to drain away their students, and that the Renaissance schools are run by out-of-town operators who aren’t accountable to parents.

The vote comes two weeks after board members decided to fight in court for the right to reject a charter school for not being “innovative.” The school board’s initial decision was overturned by the state, and now board members are appealing in a state appeals court.

Ralph Arza, a charter school lobbyist and former state legislator, said board members were “about to open Pandora’s box.”

“It’s going to wind up in court,” Arza said, “and every time they’ve made decisions regarding charter schools, they’ve been turned back.”

Shaw said he expected legal challenges to the new rules but defended them as a necessary step to reclaim control over public education in the county.

“It’s important for us to make the statement because the Legislature won’t make it,” he said.



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