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East County Friday, Aug. 20, 2021 9 months ago

Viability of Lakewood Ranch charter school pondered

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Manatee school board approves a charter school that hopes to open in Lakewood Ranch in 2022
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

From our friends at Wiki.

"Charter school — A charter school is a school that receives government funding but operates independently of the established state school system in which it is located. "

My reaction to that statement: Yikes!

As a taxpayer, this entire charter school concept irks me. Perhaps it is because my dad was a Marine. He liked order, and rules and regulations.

As the Florida Department of Education tells us, "Charter schools operate under a performance contract, or charter, which frees them from many regulations created for traditional public schools (Florida K-20 Education Code) while holding them accountable for academic and financial results."

Side of Ranch: Jay Heater

As I understand it, the Florida Department of Education establishes regulations to create the best possible learning environment for our children. But charter schools aren't held to that standard. To me, it seems the taxpayers are spending their money on an education process that is allowed to have lower standards.

The argument is that charter schools are held accountable. If they fail to perform, either in an academic or financial sense, they can have their charter revoked. In a March 2019 study comparing charter schools to public schools, the Florida Department of Education found that charter school students "outperformed their peers in traditional public schools in almost all subject areas."

Perhaps we should lower our standards for our entire public education system?

Then comes the reality that more than 400 charter schools have had their charters revoked since the first one opened in Florida in 1996. It hit home in Manatee County in 2019 when the School District of Manatee County took over Lincoln Memorial Academy and cancelled its charter.

It can leave taxpayers scratching their heads. Are the dollars put into these charter schools wasted? Is it right that we have agreed to higher taxes to pay our regular district teachers more when charter schools are allowed to pay their teachers less, or more? It's all very confusing. 

The issue is apropos for those living in East County now that the School District of Manatee County board has approved a contract with Charter Schools USA and the Southwest Charter Foundation, which hope to open the Lakewood Ranch Charter Academy late in the summer of 2022. The Southwest Charter Foundation runs eight charter schools in Florida, including the Manatee Charter School. Forty-seven of the 67 Florida counties have charter schools. Twelve percent of all Florida students attend a charter school.

The Lakewood Ranch Charter Academy will be the 14th charter school in Manatee County and the second in Lakewood Ranch. The Imagine School (3-year-olds through eighth graders) at Lakewood Ranch is the other. The Lakewood Ranch Charter Academy will "focus on science and health with a mission of its students becoming lifelong learners."

Isn't that what all our schools strive to do?

Economist Milton Friedman would tell us that the education system is stronger when parents have choices. Charter schools rose out of that concept. 

I guess I am just comfortable in those choices being regulated by the Florida Department of Education.

Perhaps any concerns about approving another charter school have been pushed into the background by the area's overcrowded schools and the need for classrooms. When the district secured a land parcel off 59th Avenue East near Premier Sports Campus in July, I was hoping to see a move to build a new high school or a middle school at the site. Whether those plans are pushed into the background because of the new charter school remain to be seen.

The bottom line is that the School District of Manatee County now is operating with a $1 billion budget. Whether or not you have children in the system, it could be time to attend some of those school board meetings to ask questions.

Is a charter school the best solution for Lakewood Ranch? Perhaps so.

But one thing is certain. You're paying for it. 

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