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More students heading to charter schools; officials brace for a bigger money drain on public education

By William Gjebre,

Millions more in state money is going to Miami-Dade and Broward charter schools as enrollment in the private schools increased by more than 7,000 students this school year, siphoning  dollars from Florida’s two large public school districts.

“The district is concerned about the loss of students to charter schools,” said Jane Turner, Broward County Public Schools Budget Director. “There is a loss of revenue, no doubt about that.”

The same message can be heard in Miami-Dade County.

 “It’s a big impact,” said Richard Hinds, Miami-Dade County Public Schools Associate Superintendent/Chief Financial Officer, said of the exodus. “It’s a considerable impact by the amount of loss revenue.”

The loss of the funds comes at a time when both districts are facing financial difficulties due to state funding reductions caused by the continuing economic downturn.

Last school year, 2009-2010, enrollment in charter schools in Broward was 20,602. Broward schools public information officer Marsy Smith said this school year enrollment in 68 charter schools increased by 2,672, to a total of 23,274, a nearly 13 percent boost.

In Miami-Dade, enrollment last year in charter schools was 30,806. This year enrollment in 92 charter schools spiked by 4,538 to a total of 35,344, a nearly 15 percent hike.

Charter school enrollment in the two districts (58,618) and 10,436 students attending private schools in Broward and Miami-Dade through the Florida Tax Credit program (see  “Florida shifting more public education funds to private hands”), total 69,054 students for 2010-2011.

That number of charter school and FTC students in the two counties would theoretically make it the 11th largest school district in the state for the current year, according to Department of Education enrollment figures. The unofficial district would fall between Brevard (71,860) and Pasco (66,994).

The Charter School program was enacted by state statute and gave parents and students an alternative (choice) to public schools since 1996. The schools are tuition-free and created through an agreement between the schools and the local school boards. State funds are funneled to the schools through the local school districts.

Broward County Superintendent of Schools James Notter could not be reached for comment despite repeated calls to his office. A request through the district’s Public Information Office asked what Notter planned to persuade parents and students to stay in public schools rather than charters.

For Miami-Dade, the 4,538 additional students represent a loss of approximately $30 million for the district. For Broward, the 2,672 represents a loss of approximately $18 million. (Turner said the increase was actually 2,400, 277 less than the 2,672, the official number provided by the District’s Charter School Office.)

Miami-Dade’s charter school enrollment jump was larger than the district had anticipated – and it will receive less money from the state. The district had anticipated enrollment to 33,800 students in charter schools, but the number grew to 35,344.

Spending shifts

At the Feb. 9 meeting, the School Board shifted $8.1 million to the charter schools to cover the increased enrollment and other payments. Hinds pointed out that the loss of funds was offset by the District needing to hire less teachers, so the total impact, he said, was $10 million.

Parents, Hinds said, are sending their children to charter schools for a variety of reason: they believe they are better and safer; some like the concept of unique schools with special programs, such as one school that basis it curriculum on ancient Greek-style education; and some don’t like where their home-based schools are located.

M-DCPS officials, therefore, are attempting to stop the loss students by expanding existing schools and offering special programs.

“We want to offer different approaches to different interests, which is what charters have been doing,” Hinds said. “Miami-Dade,” he added, “is not one community; it’s multiple communities. It’s like a mini-state.”

At the high school level, the District has created new schools and programs – the new medical arts school at the former Homestead Hospital, an international studies school in Coral Gables, and a virtual school in the District’s downtown annex fronting Biscayne Boulevard.

Helen Blanch, Assistant Superintendent, Schools of Choice, said the District is attempting to retain students at the elementary and middle school levels by expanding more elementary schools to K-8 centers.

Next year, 12 additional elementary schools will become K-8s; previous conversions have been popular with parents. In addition, special study programs will be proposed for seven middle schools and two high schools. 

The charter school expansion, Blanch said, has grown “in areas where we did not keep up with construction,” in the south and west part of the county. While only seven new charter schools opened this year, raising the number to 92, Blanch said student enrollment also increased as some charter schools added additional grades each year.

“We are answering the call, looking at the most popular programs,” Blanch said. Time will tell how effective the effort will be against an ever-expanding charter school movement.

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