As charter schools expand in most states, many are finding it difficult to lease appropriate buildings. A Florida legislator has proposed a bill that would require public schools to share space under certain conditions. Scott Travis of the Sun-Sentinel reports that while this would solve some problems, it would create others.
"If there is a demand, and we have an asset that's not already being used, this is something that should be considered. The buildings have been paid for by the public," said George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale, the vice chairman for the Choice and Innovation subcommittee, which will discuss the proposal Wednesday.
Moraitis's bill, proposed in the Education Subcommittee, would mandate that public schools that see enrollment drop below 50% must share space without rent if a charter school can use the facility. Further, vacant school buildings must be made available to charter schools for free.
But schools point out that sharing space isn't as easy as it sounds. While empty classrooms can be organized so that a wing or floor is available, single-use rooms like gyms, libraries and cafeterias aren't as easy to divide or parcel out. Having two administrations and faculties in one building would also disrupt security arrangements, which is often a serious consideration in schools that have falling enrollment. It would be even worse if the two schools didn't start and close at the same time.
"You almost have to create another position of campus manager to serve as a referee," Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said.
A Broward County School Board member pointed out that charter schools are often run by for-profit companies, which could raise tax problems if some of them are provided free building space at taxpayer expense.
Broward County has several of the schools that are at risk of falling below Moraitis's proposed threshold; more are in Palm Beach County. Falling school enrollment is a bitter topic since some of the students who are no longer at these schools are at competing charter schools. Many parents are upset at the idea of closing schools that have operated for years but are now at risk for closure. In many states, public school activists are claiming that racism is pushing states and counties toward closing schools that mostly serve poor and minority communities.
Poor and minority communities are, of course, also the target of many charter schools. Chicago recently released school averages for the ACT test, and the top ten places all went to charter schools. The highest scoring schools had student populations that were 80% and 90% below the poverty line. Charter schools claim that by not abiding by union-negotiated rules, their teachers can get better outcomes with the same poor, minority students. Teachers' unions are fighting back where they can, pushing to keep licensing of new schools limited.
Florida unions are sure to oppose Moraitis's new bill. But not all school administrators see it as a bad idea.
Chuck Shaw, former principal at JFK Charter School, west of Lake Worth, is now the School Board chairman in Palm Beach County. He said there could be some logistical challenges but he's open to the idea.
"I know charter schools have a desperate need for facilities, and it's important that we find safe, quality facilities to house children," he said.
A record number of charter schools opened for the 2012-2013 school year. At least 6,000 charter schools are operating within public school districts around the country.