- In fall 2017, the Florida state legislature created the state’s first all-charter school district in Jefferson County, a failing district with around 800 students where more than half of middle- and high-schoolers had been held back at least twice, and which had been plagued by financial problems because of a dysfunctional local government, the Tampa Bay Times reports.
- Academically, the district is showing improvement, with some students thriving to the point that its "success story" is leading state lawmakers and education leaders to consider a massive statewide expansion of charters run by private, for-profit operators that some say have questionable ties with political leaders.
- However, others question a lack of local control by elected officials that also limits students' ability to appeal decisions, ongoing discipline problems that plague the district, and challenges remaining around behavioral problems related to mental illness and some disabilities, low enrollment and some lagging test scores.
When schools and districts are in obvious trouble and seem to no longer be serving the academic needs of students, state legislatures often feel compelled to intervene. In some cases, this has meant state takeovers of individual schools or entire districts in an effort to improve outcomes and conditions.
However, these efforts have produced spotty results, and some states, like Ohio, are considering banning such takeovers all together in favor of bringing in consultants or other measures. Overall, state takeovers seem to be losing momentum as states look toward more collaborative approaches.
In Florida, the state is experimenting with a “schools of hope” approach that favors the use of private, for-profit charter school networks such as Somerset Academy, Inc. In the Jefferson County School District, the approach has already boosted academic outcomes and is improving school culture. Before Somerset took over, schools reportedly earned Ds and Fs. At the end of the first year after the Somerset takeover, all three schools in the district were earning Cs — though the elementary school dropped to a D in the second year.
Critics note this difference was achieved with a significant influx of additional money that allowed the district to pursue a number of efforts including increasing teacher pay to attract better teachers, upgrading school facilities, offering before- and after-school care, and hiring more security guards.
According to WRLN News, a local station that has been covering this issue, while the average Florida district spent about $10,500 per student in the 2016-17 school year, Jefferson County was spending about $13,500 per student. After the Somerset takeover in the fall of 2017, the per-student cost was almost $16,600.
Still, discipline problems continue to plague the district. Repeated offenders are now often removed from campus and enrolled in a virtual school for 45 days. But some are never allowed back on campus, and, because they are not officially “expelled,” are not allowed the opportunity to appeal the decision.
Concerns such as this are among reasons the National Education Policy Center say school privatization allows for greater discrimination. Other organizations, such as the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, have expressed concern that school privatization efforts threaten public education in the long run. Takeover or not, longterm success and improvement seem incumbent upon addressing the underlying challenges impacting achievement to begin with.