May 11, 2011|By Jon Hage South Florida Sun-Sentinel
How appropriate, though unplanned, it is that the Florida Legislature ended by passing historic charter school legislation, the same week our nation celebrated National Charter School Week. Former Gov. Jeb Bush often remarks, “It’s not about the adults, it’s about the students.” These words echo strongly again in Florida as Senate President Mike Haridopolos, House Speaker Dean Cannon and Gov. Rick Scott championed expanding corporate tax scholarships, virtual schools and charter schools. With some 150,000 students and waiting lists nearing 50,000, charter school growth of 15 percent per year cannot keep up with demand. Far too often, school districts have seen themselves as competitors, rather than collaborators with charters, by opposing charter growth and expansion, even for the highest-performing charters. To help these students and parents, Florida has broken new ground in the charter school world by creating the designation of High Performing Charter Schools and by providing incentives to replicate those proven schools to serve more students. Of course, all charters are not high-performing, and chronically low performers should be shut down. But if we are to close the achievement gap in America, we need to replicate and scale the successful models and give them incentives to go into low-performing areas. A high-performing charter school helps surrounding schools become better and pressures bad schools to improve or lose students and the funding that goes with them. Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools must perform every year or risk being shut down. Unfortunately, charters still must fight the inequity in per-pupil funding. In fact, charters do not receive local funds for school construction and some federal funds directly, even though they are public schools supported by the same taxpaying parents. While charters can and do provide more for less dollars, it is unfair to make deeper cuts in charter budgets than to school district budgets. Florida’s governor and Legislature worked hard to avoid unfair cuts to charters by restoring their capital dollars, though much work in the future is needed to address this problem. Florida is now reclaiming our rightful role of reform leader. We must never lose heart in our pursuit of excellence and be willing to see through these ideas, even while ensuring we appropriately fund what works, whether traditional public schools or school choice laboratories of innovation. The recent nationally acclaimed documentary, “Waiting for Superman,” appropriately asked: Where is Superman, and who’s going to save us? The answer, at least in Florida and in a growing number of other states, is the parents and our representatives who listen to them! Jon Hage is the president and CEO of Charter Schools USA, one of the nation’s largest operators of charter schools based in Fort Lauderdale.