More charter schools for better education, minimal impact on budget


Published: Sunday, December 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 30, 2002 at 10:06 p.m.
On Nov.19, our newly elected School Board got an earful of the problems they will face in the coming years and took a first tentative step toward addressing those problems in a meaningful and innovative way.
They sent Don Lewis, the district charter school administrator, off to Tallahassee to obtain permission from the state Board of Education to increase the number of charter schools in Alachua County by three.
Although we are currently at our statutory limit of 12 charters, the Department of Education is anxious to double the number of charter schools in the state and will surely grant the School Board's request.
This request would not have been made a month ago.
The outgoing board was clearly in no mood to expand the charter school program. During the campaign, our new board members made very clear their willingness to support the creation of more high-quality charter schools in Alachua County.
This is exactly the kind of open minded, far sighted, innovative and proactive thinking required to face down the double whammy of increasing educational demands and shrinking state resources.
While the situation may seem desperate to those bogged-down in educational business as usual, recent events have conspired to present a remarkable opportunity.
Federal charter-school grants totaling $75 million will be distributed in Florida over the next three years. More importantly, unlimited human educational resources are available here in Alachua County.
So, as I listened to the worried but newly hopeful voices of our school administrators, board members, teacher union officials, educators, parents and residents at the School Board meeting, a vision of our school district's future formed.
Imagine an Alachua County in which a visionary School Board resolves to solicit the incredible expertise and talents of its teacher union, university, charter-school operators, local businesses and agencies to solve the thorny issues of class size reduction, zoning, teacher pay, pre-K education and parental choice.
Imagine a district where, like their counterparts in Dade County, the teacher union opens and operates multiple charter schools, conceived and governed by teachers; where UF's College of Education, under the leadership of its new dean, follows the lead of Florida State University and sponsors charter lab schools and resource centers; where the School Board actively seeks highly qualified individuals and institutions to create charter schools in needed areas; where troubled public schools, like Duval Elementary, take control of their own destiny by converting to a site managed charter school with new resources and limitless options for reform.
Imagine a district where drastically under-enrolled schools (like Prairie View Elementary) rents its unused space to small charter schools serving the needs of special students; where highly motivated, highly qualified educators like Jim Owens of the ACEA work in teacher controlled environments setting their own budgets and pay scales; where, in short, the law allows nearly unlimited imagination in the service of our children.
The teacher union is asking for a place at the decision making table.
At the last School Board meeting, ACEA President Gunnar Paulson reminded us that it was a union official who first conceived of charter schools.
Jim Owens pointed out that the union produced a better payroll budget estimate than district administrators. Now is the time to stop the squabbling between district and union and put union expertise to work in teacher operated charter and conversion schools.
The university's connection with public education in the community is woefully inadequate.
The College of Education should be operating schools. The ghost of John Dewey would insist. Charter lab schools are the perfect opportunity to learn about life in real schools while serving the community.
The School Board should be looking at charters, who pay for their own campuses with no district funds, to take up a substantial amount of the burden of future school growth.
According to school officials, the district will need at least a half dozen large new schools in the next five or six years at a cost of many millions of dollars.
Charters have brought in millions of dollars in capital funds to the district and stand to bring in many millions more in the future. Don Lewis, much in demand throughout the state for his expertise in charter law and operation, is an ideal administrator for the growth of parental choice through charter schools.
The One Room School House Project will soon ask the School Board to return to Tallahassee for another exemption from our cap. We intend to create the first constitutionally mandated four-year-old pre-K center. We will do this at no cost to the district. We hope other qualified educators will follow.
Neil Drake is principal of the One Room School House Charter School in Gainesville.

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