Florida legislators gathered last week to watch Waiting for Superman, a documentary that advances two solutions for the problems with America’s education system: school choice and accountability for teachers. It also emphasizes the role charter schools can play in the educational debate.

But new Florida data shows that students at charter schools are not significantly more proficient at reading, math, and science than those at traditional public schools.

Florida School Choice, an office of the Florida Department of Education, offers scholarship programs, private school information, and public school choices. That last priority includes public charter schools.

According to a School Choice fact sheet, “since 1996, Florida charter schools have played a key role in increasing parental options in public education and providing innovative learning opportunities for students.”

The fact sheet adds that for the 2009-2010 school year, more than 137,000 Florida students were enrolled in 410 tuition-free public charter schools.

School accountability data from 2008-2009 shows that, out of 389 existing charter schools, 239 were given grades, and over 50 percent of those schools received an A grade and 20 percent a B. The number of charter schools with “Adequate Yearly Progress” was 119.

A report on student achievement in state charter schools from that year compares achievement in charter schools with traditional public schools. It indicates that in the 2008-2009 school year, charter schools taught 118,000 students while traditional public schools hosted more than  2.5 million students.

The report highlights the increase in the number of charter schools with an A grade from 2002 through 2009 and states that “charter school students outperformed traditional public school students” in the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (aka the FCAT).

But a closer look at the results shows the proficiency percentages for both charter and traditional public schools were similar:

  • In reading proficiency at the elementary level, 76 percent of charter school students were proficient, while 73 percent of public school students were. At the middle school level, charter school students had 69 percent proficiency, compared to 63 percent for public school students. At the high school level, charter school students had 44 percent proficiency. Public school students had 43 percent.
  • In math proficiency, at the elementary level, charter students stood at 73 percent and public school students were at 72 percent. The middle school level shows 65 percent for charter school students versus 62 percent for public school students.

Florida School Choices did not respond to Florida Independent requests to discuss what impact the huge difference between the number of students evaluated in the two types of schools would have on FCAT proficiency numbers.

Florida Department of Education School Accountability data shows that in the 2009-2010 school year, a little more than 140 charter schools were evaluated while 470 public schools were evaluated.

The data makes clear the need to look carefully at the average percentage of students meeting high standards in reading, math, and science in each school district to determine whether charter schools offer parents a better choice to solve the problems facing education in Florida.

Charter schools may not differ much academically from traditional public schools, but they are administrated in very different ways. According to the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools,

charter schools are non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations that have a contract or charter to provide the same educational services to students as district public schools. They are nonsectarian public schools that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.

There are also for-profit education management companies such as Charter Schools USA, which is based in Fort Lauderdale and manages 18 charter schools in Florida. The company’s website says Charter Schools USA is

one of the largest providers of charter school management services in the nation. We successfully manage private and municipal charters for grades pre-K through 12. Charter Schools USA assists corporations, government entities, developers or nonprofit agencies with all phases of charter school design, planning, development, financing, construction, operations and curricula.

Jonathan Hage — the current chairman, president, and CEO of Charter Schools USA — is a member of Gov.-elect Rick Scott’s education transition team. Hage served as director of research for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Florida’s Future, a strong advocate for school choice. He has also worked for George H.W. Bush and was a member of Charlie Crist’s education transition team.

On its website, Charter Schools USA calls for readers to actively lobby the legislature to strengthen educational options.

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