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House subcommittee eager to bring in high-performing charter schools

By   /   February 17, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

As representatives from some of the nation’s top-performing charter schools discussed how their programs were successfully closing student achievement gaps, members of the House PreK-12 Innovation Subcommittee had a different “how” question in mind:

How can we get you to come to Florida?

The subcommittee heard this week from representatives of three out-of-state charter networks:  Daniel Fishman, vice president of growth for IDEA public schools based in Texas; Peter Cymrot, vice president of legal and expansion for Achievement First in New York; and Peter Bezanson, CEO for BASIS.ed in Arizona.

Before they spoke, Lesley Poole, CEO of The SEED Foundation, testified about the success of The SEED School of Miami — the only in-state institution discussed at the hearing.

SEED also has schools in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., which operate under the same model: publicly funded college preparatory boarding schools.  

“We’re using the gift of time,” Poole told the committee. SEED Miami is on the Florida Memorial University campus. Students board five nights a week, arriving on Sunday night and returning to their families on Friday.

She said SEED placed a particular emphasis on literacy across disciplines, and engaged students by making it easy for them to track their own improvement.

Poole said SEED received $25,000 per pupil from state appropriations and a $6,700 local allocation per pupil. They currently serve 130 students, which will increase to 240 next year. 

State Rep. Mel Ponder, R-Destin, wanted to know about the community impact of SEED.

“You said 100 percent of your kids come from below poverty level. … Are you seeing the families starting to have hope themselves and breaking some of this cyclicality of poverty?” he asked.

Poole said she has seen changes in both families and communities, particularly around their more-established schools in D.C. and Maryland.

“We have seen families really almost conquer and beat some of the homelessness challenges because … their son or daughter is stable during the week,” Poole said.

“Is there anything keeping you from expanding to other areas in the state of Florida at the moment right now?” asked state Rep. John Cortes, D-Kissimmee.

“If you tell us to, we will,” Poole told the members. “Also, if you fund them, we’ll come.”

Outsiders weigh in

The need for funding— and facilities— was echoed by the other charter networks.  

Like SEED Miami, IDEA, Achievement First and BASIS have all had success improving the academic performance of kids in underserved communities. Bezanson, Cymrot and Fishman agreed with Poole that funding was important to their ability to have an impact in a community.

“Access to facilities is also very important to us, as you’ve heard from our peers, or in lieu of access to facilities, funding to build our own facilities,” Fishman said. He added that, in Texas, IDEA had traditionally built their own facilities, each of which seats 1,500 kids and cost about $21 million to build.

However, the charter representatives stated that when they were deciding what states to enter, the most important policy conditions they looked for were those that made it possible to hire — and fire — the right teachers.

“We don’t go into states where there’s no way around teacher certification laws,” Bezanson said. He added that BASIS would rather hire a subject-matter expert that was good with kids, with or without a teaching certification.

Cymrot, who said he thought New York has the clearest and most effective charter school laws, concurred that teacher certification was a key issue.

“In one of our other states we wanted to hire the teacher of the year from Washington, D.C.  We recruited him, but the teacher wasn’t eligible for certification reciprocity because of different requirements in coursework,” Cymrot said. Although they managed to hire that teacher after months of wrangling, he said that Achievement First has lost other talented teachers over similar issues.

Gov. Rick Scott’s 2017-18 budget proposal includes a provision to eliminate teacher certification fees, which he says will remove one impediment to keeping teachers in the public school system.

One thing that Bezanson said was in Florida’s favor is a strong university system. “Since we hire subject-expert teachers, we need to come into regions with really strong colleges and universities. We want to hire from within state.”

State Rep. Sam Killebrew, R-Winter Haven, asked how important being able to fire under-performing teachers was.

The consensus was that it was crucial.

“We want to retain 100 percent of our best teachers, and we want to retain zero percent of our worst teachers,” Fishman said.

“Our school leaders have the ability to hire and fire teachers based on the quality of their instruction,” Cymrot said.

State Rep. Joseph Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, asked how the charters avoided letting favoritism or intra-school competition for performance bonuses interfere with collegiality. The charter school representatives said that this was something they took very seriously.

Bezanson said that they relied on externally validated student achievement tests, such as Advanced Placement test results, and on seeking input from across their network. Fishman concurred, and added IDEA sought to find professionals looking to improve. They also created a “teacher career pathway” that allowed for more pay as a teacher gains expertise.

When can you get here?

Ponder wanted to know how soon the charters would be interested in expanding to Florida.

Cymrot said that Achievement First wasn’t ready to move out of the Northeast yet, but both BASIS and IDEA were in the middle of considering new markets.

Bezanson said that BASIS was considering entering either Colorado or Florida in 2020.

Fishman said that IDEA was also in the middle of making 2020 plans, but wasn’t leaning toward Florida.

“I would say currently Florida is not a top contender because of some of the policy conditions, but I would say that we’d very much like to consider it strongly … if the conditions are such that we think we can successfully open schools,” Fishman said.

“If there was reform, change in the state, could those dates be moved up?” Ponder asked. “Florida’s really looking to make some positive change and embrace the vision to accelerate the charter program. Could that change?”

Bezanson was cautiously optimistic, while Fishman was just cautious.

“We have learned the hard way that when we try to rush this, our schools aren’t uniformly successful,” he said.

“We have this 18-month framework that we almost always violate, so the answer is yes,” said Bezanson. “We went from conception to opening in China in nine months.”

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Erin Clark is a Florida reporter for Watchdog.org. A graduate of the University of Richmond, Clark competed on the professional tennis circuit for several years before returning to writing. Her work has been republished in national and state publications, including the Apopka Voice, Bradenton Herald, Saint Peters Blog, Florida Politics, Sunshine State News, and Townhall. Erin is a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors and the Florida Press Association.