Sept. 14, 2021
In a recent column, U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor from Tampa bemoaned the rise of public charter schools in Florida, claiming they undermine traditional district schools.
I understand her fears. Back in the late 1990s, when charter schools were new in Florida thanks to legislation signed into law by Gov. Lawton Chiles, I was also concerned. I didn’t understand them.
But then I educated myself. I visited charter schools and saw the good they are doing. And now we have two decades of evidence showing charters benefit families and often help strengthen district schools.
A decade ago, I became principal of a charter school: Somerset Academy Eagle Campus. We serve a low-income, minority-majority population. About 90 percent of our 586 students are Black and zoned to attend Title I district schools. Our K-5 elementary school earned an A grade from the state prior to the pandemic, and the middle school received a B.
Families choose our school because we meet kids where they are. We build strong relationships with our students and give them the extra attention they need. Students come to us and blossom, achieving higher than they did in their assigned district school. Charters excel at adapting instruction to the needs of each child. And we enthusiastically celebrate every success.
Parents hold us accountable for the education we provide their children. They are not legally required to attend our school. If we don’t meet their child’s needs, they will go to another school.
Underperforming charter schools close. Unfortunately, underperforming district schools rarely close. They just keep failing.
Somerset is part of the Academica network of charter schools. In 2019, the last time the state released grades, 96 percent of Academica’s Florida charter schools received an “A.”
Academica is a for-profit company that has operated in Florida for 20 years. Rep. Castor used the term “for-profit” eight times in her column, implying that the existence of for-profit companies in public education is bad. But there would be no public schools without the products and services they purchase from for-profit companies. School buildings, desks, books, paper, pencils, computers, air conditioning and insurance all come from for-profit companies.
Rep. Castor criticizes charter schools for allowing too many minority families to choose to attend the same school. But the 2019 Urban Institute study she cites to support her claim concludes that: “Our study shows that critics are incorrect when they say that charters are driving a re-segregation of American schools. Their impact on segregation is small and appears to be somewhat offset by improvements in racial balance across districts in the same metro area.”
If charter schools have majority-minority student bodies, it’s because the schools, like Somerset, are doing a great job serving minority communities.
The data show that after two decades of robust growth in choice programs that include charters and private school scholarships, Florida has made substantial academic progress. Education Week just ranked Florida No. 3 in the nation in K-12 achievement for the second year in a row, maintaining its highest spot ever. The state also ranks No. 1, No. 1, No. 3, and No. 8 on the four core tests of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, when adjusted for demographics.
My views of charter schools changed when I took the time to visit charter schools and educate myself. I hope skeptics like Rep. Castor will do the same. I invite them to visit our school. Our teachers, parents, and students would love to talk with you. You’ll see that we are good people doing good work.
Tunji Williams is principal of Somerset Academy Eagle Campus in Jacksonville.
Credits: Tunji Williams, The Florida Times-Union