Course correction

Will Charter schools make the grade in Orange County?;;Charter schools are about parents working harder for their kids' education, says David Bowers, a parent at Windy Ridge Elementary in southwest Orlando; moreover, as one school improves, it will inspire others. "They'll see that it takes parent participation to really make quality education," he says. "It will make public education stronger.";;Believing that to be true, a majority of Windy Ridge parents voted last week to go "charter"; if the Orange County School Board aproves the change next month, theirs wil be the first public school in the state to so convert.;;Charter schools are still public schools, receiving public money. But they are liberated from most regulations that now govern other public cshools. Charter proponents promise smarter students, which they hope to guarantee by raising the standards; if the students don't meet those standards, the school loses its charter. Better student-teacher ratios and more innovative teaching styles are not a given, but the key promise is accountability.;;That promise has made charter schools into this year's hot, bi-partisan unified education theory. And the movement has hit Central Florida in a big way, with Orange County giving the go-ahead last month for two private charters while rejecting - at least for now - a third. ;;Statewide, proposed charter schools are as different as can be, proposing the novelty of high school at night as well as more traditional instruction of students who are learning disabled or "at-risk." They are urban and rural and suburban. They have been pushed forward by parents and teachers of existing schools, and by private groups led either by former principals or businessmen, and sometimes both. ;;So far, 26 states allow charter schools, and four more will do so within a few months. In Orange County, Betty and Roger Popp received an OK to run the Passport School for 125 "special needs" kids from kindergarten through eighth grade. In Dade County, the Urban League has teamed with Jeb Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future to start as inner-city school. Florida currently is home to only six charter schools, but 75 applications are in the pipeline, 12 of which have been approved, says Tracey Bailey, the state's coordinator for education reform.;;Indeed, if the charter-school movement is ready to pile money atop its position papers, there could be 40 to 50 schools operating in the state by September. But don't bet the rent.;;Because money - not parental involvement - is the real key.;;Very few charter school partisans talk about money in the same breath with schools. If they mention money at all, it is to point out that Florida already spends more money per public school student than 20 other states. ;;But to rent a building, say, or hire a teacher (even at reduced, non-union pay scales), it takes cash - especially start-up cash, which pricate charter school operators often do not have. ;;Gven the promise, it is worth considering what charter schools really deliver here and elsewhere, and the philosophy underlying the hype.;;Windy Ridge Elementaty was built this decade to accept kids bused from the surrounding poor communities. Today the school has about 600 pupils in grades K-5; about 300 are calssified as needing special attention. The school has won recognition for the past several years as one of the state's best. ;;"We believe that the public charter conversion really meets the intent of the choice law," says David Bowers, who is chairman of the school's parent advisory council. "We know private schools work; they've worked for decades. But this [public conversion] really requires the participation ot parents and teachers in a public setting. That's going to make a huge difference and, perhaps, give you an indication of how public schools can go.";;Bowers estimates that, freed from the county school district's administrative overhead, Windy Ridge will have an additional $150,000 to invest in itself. That windfall will help hire a reading specialist, a Spanish teacher and perhaps a part-time drama instructor. And next year the parents and staff hope to expand the number of grades at Windy Ridge up through sixth, seventh and eighth, he says, "so the kids can grow up with the school.";;There also are plans for more and better educational software and a new arrangement with the teachers' and staff unions. He notes that the local teachers' union is behind the charter program, and that 58 of the 80 teachers and staff members at Windy Ridge voted for the charter. ;;Bob Williams, deputy superintendent for instructional services for Orange Couty Public Schools, says that while he hasn't seen the Windy Ridge application, the key isues will be beaurocratic: negotiating terms of the teachers' leave of absence from the school system, and figuring how to integrate the school into a district affected by a federal busing mandate. Nothing insurmountable, given cooperation and partnership, he says.;;Bowers is an education consultant and one of the main proponents of the charter system. But he is also a graduate of one of a series of three-day seminars held by the Greater Orlando Chamber of Commerce as part of the chamber's education reform effort. Dubbed the "WorldClass" program, that effort is a subsidiary of a non-profit organization set up by the Chamber called WorldClass Schools, Inc. Similar to other chamber-led efforts across the state, the goal is to "train" 1,000 people in 1,000 days as "WorldClass Champions" who will advocate for better schools, market solutions and an end to government regulation. One should not try to understand the charter school movement in Florida without explaining the Chamber of Commerce's education goals.;;WorldClass Schools, Inc., has publshed an "action plan" calling for higher academic standards, more tests and assessments of student ability, greater use of technology and a curriculum based on "real world" situations, as well as more empowered teachers and parent advisory committees like the one Bowers heads. ;;Key to the action plan is a more supportive community. This is where the Chamber and its WorldClass Champions are most aggressive. According to the action plan, the Chamber will create these champions through its seminars, plus an "executive acadamy" (for CEOs only) and a series of "Leadership Orlando" Acadamies. The organization also aims to transform the state public education system with "WorldClass Schools, Inc. Logo Slicks" for use on letterheads and business cards, a "WorldClass Schools, Inc., speech," and the usual array of "community alliances and partnerships" between business leaders and educators. According to the plan, "In order to succeed in busines and education, we must be PALs today. Pool…Ally…Link..P-A-L.";;So far about 300 business leaders, educators and other movers and shakers have completed the seminars. Dave Robertson, chief edication officer for Summit Charter Schools and a "Champion" himself, has faxed 128 of them, looking for links of material or money as he proceeds with charter school plans of his own. ;;As of this week, only one return fax even acknowledged his existance. No materials. No money. Just a wish of good luck.;;Robertson, a former principal in Georgia and a one-time Pine Hills Elementary teacher, was winner two weeks ago when Orange County granted his school a charter. The Summit Schools would serve learning disabled kids with a system developed by a Winter Park man. ;;Robertson has spent much of his career teaching or working with learning disabled kids, he says, and most of the programs developed to help them don't work. He says he's been trying to get the new system into the public schools for three years without success. Summit, meanwhile, has applied for seven charters this year, and already has been approved in Orange and Brevard; a vote is pending in Seminole.;;"We are frantically trying to raise funds," he says. "We are sure looking for sponsors to do a lot of things. We'd love for someone to come up with a facility - 10 classrooms with an office. Computers, desks, flags.";;Why is Summit Schools in such tough shape? Because, although charter schools will be given the same amount of state money that existing public schools get to educate children, the charters won't get it until they actually open for business. That means Robertson has to carry the cost of rent, teachers, training and materials until the state money starts to roll in. ;;Now, consider this: charter schools are such a great idea that President Clinton has made $17 million available for start-ups. But in the real world of finding space, the federal money is irrelevant. "Bottom line," says Robertson: "down the road we may end up with $20,000. The six charter schools that do exist [in Florida] got their funding a month ago - a year after they opened.";;There's more: on a per-student basis, charter schools actually won't get all the money now given to public schools. They'll get maybe 45 to 70 percent. That's because charter schools don't get money for buildings. On average, the state's per-pupil education expense last year was $3,540, says Bailey, of state's education reform coordinator. But the total expense, once bond payments and other capital costs are added, ranged from $5,500 to $8,000. Charters get only the lesser, oOperating-expenses figure, minus 5 percent for district overhead.;;That stingy funding begins to explain why so many charter proposals deal with special needs students: under state and federal funding formulas, those are the students who get a bit more money. ;;Robertson says he has only until mid-May to raise maybe $200,000 or so to get running. (Orange County approved the Summit and Passport charter schools to start this fall, on the condition that they raise their own money and enroll their own students.) Robertson says he's following his earlier round of faxes no with phone calls, even as parents are calling to inquire about how to get their kids into his school. He is sanguine on the concept of sponsorship. "A little advertising is fine," he says. Patches on the kids uniforms? "That wouldn't hurt my feelings a bit." How about a big corporate logo or banner? "I'll fly their banner on the front window if they want," Robertson says, Cooperation. Partnership. ;;Don McCammon thinks a little honest business savvy would go a long way towards correcting what is wrong with public education. As a principle force behind Florida Charter Schools, Inc., McCammon is the first to appeal a charter rejection by a local school board. Citing concerns with his business structure and his history, Orange County rejected McCammon's pitch at the same time tht it approves the two others. ;;McCammon's idea is to teach "at-risk" high school students at night, holding classes for them when they're apt to be awake anyway, and offering a no-frills, high-discipline, drug-tested, computer-aided curriculum that will turn them into good students and bring a lifetime of success. He cites an opinion poll conducted by Orange County in which some 30 percent of high school students said they'd opt for an afternoon or night class. ;;It's worth noting that McCammon's idea is to use existing schools during off hours, neatly side-stepping the capital investment problem that so plagues his peers. But McCammon also is a failed businesman with a bankruptcy on his record. It wouldn't do to be reckless with public funds; even good ideas need to be implemented with due caution. ;;McCammon already sees a way to shave costs. At Florida Charter, teachers would be paid a part-time wage of $16-$20 an hour, he says. "At five hours a night, four nights a week, it ends up being $18,000-$20,000 a year, plus a pension," he says. "Sixteen to twenty dollars an hour for someone who is out of work is pretty good.";;Yes it is. But teaching at-risk high schoolers isn't a part-time job. Or at least it shouldn't be. And, assuming a normal school year, the pay actually works out at around $10,000 gross, which is a poverty wage. Florida teachers average acout $31,000 a year. ;;Although McCammon alone among local charter proponents would undercut those wages, and although the National Education Association this year reversed itself and now backs charter schools, part of the idea behind them is to redefine teaching as a "part-time" occupation. It has long enraged right-wing think tank types that teachers earn a homeowners wage working 180 days a year, with summers off. Vouchers would destroy the profession fastest, but they have been blocked. The managed privatization available through charter schools will give the teachers a modicum of control for a short time before "market forces" drive down their wages. ;;Stripped of all the rhetoric, education "reform," like welfare reform and "free trade," is mainly about defining down the expectations of average Americans. The pity is that too many genuinely good ideas - and so many committed people - are about to be sacrificed on the alter of this ideology.;;In Florida, as in most places, the mental muscle driving charter schools comes from the political right. Think-tanks such as Bush's Foundation for Florida's Future and the Chamber of Commerce have clamored for better, cheaper education and an end to tenure, often with little sense of how things actually work in classrooms, neighborhoods and schools. The Chamber's 1993 call to arms, titled "No More Excuses," is full of paeans to "Total Quality" and the alleged coming time of "high-skill, high-wage" jobs. It's nonsense. The United States' future, as currently ensconced in Chamber-backed trade policy and tax law, is a society composed of about 80 percent low-wage, low-skill, part-time workers; 15 to 19 percent managers, and the rest investment bankers, basketball team owners, Washington lobbyists and billionaire presidential candidates. The monograph displays its contradictions in part by calling all high school students to graduate knowing "how to allocate time, money, materials, space and staff." It's nice and all but, really, how many normal folks can be expected to have a staff?;;This doesn't mean every Chamber of Commerce member is evil or that everything about charter schools is bad. Far from it. As Bowers explains, Windy Ridge already is doing the kind of progressive, whole-learning education that teaches kids how to think through real-world problems and devise creative solutions. Some of the kids go a long way between letter grades, yet they breeze through standardized tests. They likely will do even better with more teachers and a longer stay at the school, which wouldn't be possible except with the charter. ;;Bob Williams, of the Orange County Public Schools, is a "WorldClass Champion" himself. "I went through the first group," he says. "I was the only educator in the group. They used the words, 'we need to push and partner.' I don't have a problem with that. I don't mind if they push. But the key part is partner." Partnering can mean a lot of things. But nowhere does the Chamber's "No More Excuses" agenda call for actual businesspeople to pony up cash to support the society that allows them to do business. And nowhere does it discuss the real reason for compulsory, free, public education, which is not merely to create better workers but to develop citizens capable of supporting a democracy.;;Charter schools will work if they are funded. But creating a "world class" education system will take more than buzz-words and an attack on beaurocracy. Honest businesspeople know you don't get something for nothng.