Azra: “The only threat to parental choice…”

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In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Ralph Arza, chief spokesman for Florida Charter School Alliance, identifies a growing need for charter schools, and questions recent decisions by the Palm Beach County School board.

“The only reason charter schools are growing is because parents are driving the demand. Charter school seats are filled because parents believe that charter schools are the best option for their child,” said Arza.

The following includes the full article in the Palm Beach Post:

As one of the state’s leading voices on charter schools, Ralph Arza often finds himself at odds with the very public school districts within which charters are expected to exist.

Charters, which are publicly funded but privately run, have been expanding at a fast clip around the state — especially in Palm Beach County. As a result, the county School Board has proposed restrictions that will likely slow that expansion.

Arza, a chief spokesman for the Florida Charter School Alliance, says the School Board is overreaching out of fear that parents are increasingly voting with their feet to leave traditional public schools for charters. Indeed, one out of every 10 public school students in Florida attended a charter this past academic year.

The School Board isn’t backing down, but neither is Arza. A social studies teacher at a Miami-Dade high school for 18 years, the 55-year-old was elected to the Florida Legislature in 2000 and quickly became a top advocate for education reform. Before resigning from the Legislature in 2006, he chaired a House education committee and worked closely with former Gov. Jeb Bush on charter school legislation.

Arza agreed to answer several questions from The Post Editorial Board about the charter school debate.
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POST: As charter schools seem to have expanded in mission as well as number, why is the Palm Beach County School Board’s push for added restrictions a bad thing?

ARZA: The only reason charter schools are growing is because parents are driving the demand. Charter school seats are filled because parents believe that charter schools are the best option for their child. Restrictions are an attempt to protect an education monopoly that limits parental choice.

The charter school movement supports accountability, and believes that plenty of restrictions already exist in state statute and in the contract between a district and a charter school. These contracts provide districts with an avenue to implement added rules and terms for termination or nonrenewal that go beyond what’s in state statute.

POST: There are three proposed restrictions that are particularly troubling to charter school advocates … Why is that?

ARZA: Palm Beach County’s restrictions are contrary to state statute.

Parents know what education environment they want and don’t want for their child. They are empowered. For the (school) board to continue to push for restrictions is an attempt to ignore parental choice and ignore the real problem: that parents are choosing alternatives to their zoned school.

I, as do the leading charter operators in Florida, support a high bar for approving charter schools. It only hurts the great operators to have bad apples approved and shut down. However, the School Board has crossed the line and is now abusing and overstepping its authority by trying to stop one of the best school operators in the U.S. (Charter Schools USA) just because it feels threatened, and is losing students to their schools. That’s an abuse of power.

POST: Are charter schools a “threat” to traditional public schools? And if not, why not?

ARZA: The only threat here is to parental choice. The school district is trying to limit the right of a parent to choose what school their child attends. Charter schools earn the right to educate a child.

Districts view charter schools as a threat while ignoring the real issue: they are being challenged by parents to provide a better product. When a parent decides to sends a child to a charter school, more often than not, their child’s needs are not being met at a traditional district school. For example, in Palm Beach County, 17,000 students applied for 9,126 choice program seats available next year.

Charter schools are public schools, and schools of choice that provide a great benefit to families. Similar to the district’s (choice) programs, charter schools provide families with an educational option. This option to choose is something families with means have always had. They’ve had the ability to pay for a private school, or change their ZIP code if their assigned or zoned public school didn’t meet their child’s needs. Charter schools have given all families the option to pick a school that best supports their child. This has been particularly beneficial for minority families.

Charter schools have also forced districts to listen to parents — their customers. Several school districts around the state have made significant improvements to their schools thanks to charter schools

POST: Charters have also been accused of siphoning money away from traditional public schools, or other school district priorities? … Is that a fair assessment?

ARZA: That is a false accusation. Education funding belongs to students not a bureaucracy. The state allocates per-student funding to all public schools — a certain percentage of those funds follow students that attend a charter school. Education funding is taxpayer-generated income. The attitude that the district is entitled to those funds is troublesome. Charter school leaders understand that you have to earn those funds by providing a quality service to parents and how you educate their child.

The reality is: charters are underfunded relative to traditional schools even though they serve more minority students; charter school students received an estimated 20.7 percent less funding than students attending a district-run school; districts keep 2.5 percent to 5 percent of the per-student funding allocated to a charter school; and charters in Palm Beach County get zero dollars from millage funding even though their parents contribute to that funding.

POST: Do students at Palm Beach County charters perform better than those at traditional public schools? … If so, can you share the data to back that up?

ARZA: In 2014, 46 percent of charter schools received an “A” grade on the state assessment, 34 percent of district schools received an “A” grade. A report released by the Florida Department of Education in May 2014 compared proficiency, learning gains and achievement gap among students attending charter and district public school.

The results show that in 58 of the 63 separate comparisons of student achievement, students enrolled in charter schools demonstrated higher proficiency rates; and the percentage of students making learning gains was higher in charter schools in 76 of the 96 comparisons.

Charter Schools USA recently released a Florida State Report showing that its schools outperformed the districts they are in and the state: http://charterschoolsusa.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/CSUSA_FloridaReport.pdf

POST: Are teachers held to the same state standards at charters and traditional schools, or can the former disregard those standards?

ARZA: According to Florida statute, teachers employed by or under contract to a charter school are required to be certified.

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