Charter schools get help from an unexpected source

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Support for charter schools no longer is an issue reserved for conservative, Republican education reformers. In increasing numbers, liberal Democrats are weighing in on the side of charter schools. This glimmer of bipartisanship bodes well for education in Florida, and throughout the United States

This year in Tallahassee, the Legislature, with some cross-party support, increased facilities funding for charter schools by $91 million. On a national level, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, with the endorsement of President Obama, has been an outspoken advocate of charter schools.

Politicians can spot trends, and act accordingly. In the last decade, enrollment in Florida charter schools has more than tripled, from 67,000 students to 203,000. Nationwide, 2.3 million students attend charter schools, and the demand is increasing, as are the waiting lists. Children can't vote, but their parents can, and politicians who ignore parents' demands for charter schools do so at their peril.

Charter schools are public schools that receive tax dollars, but function with their own boards of directors and enjoy substantial independence from state and local regulations. I spoke on separate occasions recently with two local charter school leaders with widely different political backgrounds.

Frank Biden of Ocean Ridge is president of Mavericks Charter High Schools, which operates seven charter schools, mainly in South Florida. Like his brother, Vice President Joe Biden, he's an unabashed Democrat. His schools serve mainly minority students. Many have criminal records, or deal with addiction problems. Most failed miserably in the traditional public school environment. The Mavericks charter schools tailor education programs to individual students' circumstances, and at least give them a chance at success.

"These kids have made a choice to give education another go," Biden said, with the passion of a true believer. "Education is their civil rights issue. These kids have a right to the same education others receive." Biden and the Mavericks schools have been a source of controversy. Among other things, critics claim graduation rates aren't good enough. Still, these schools are dealing with a student population that had been written off by the rest of society.

What about those who claim charter schools are failing in their mission? "If they sat down with Arne Duncan, my brother and the president and told them that, they'd be laughed out of the room," Biden insists.

Jonathan Hage is CEO of the Fort Lauderdale-based Charter Schools USA. In a previous incarnation, he served as an adviser to Jeb Bush and helped draft the 1996 law that authorized Florida's charter schools. From its South Florida roots, the corporation has expanded into seven states, where it manages 60 schools enrolling 50,000 students. Charter Schools USA is perhaps the best charter school management company in the nation, and the number of "A" schools in its orbit attests to its success.

Hage has been heavily involved in lobbying for more funding for charter schools, which receive only about two-thirds of that available to traditional public schools. But he also supports regulations aimed at weeding out mismanaged charter schools that can give the entire movement a bad name.

He, too, sees a broadening of political support for charter schools, and asserts the debate about whether they should be a part of the nation's educational system is over. The political discussion now is revolving around what Hage calls, "Charter Schools 2.0."

"What policies do we need to implement to improve charter schools? How do we replicate the great ones? How do we shut down the bad charter schools? How do we share information with traditional public schools, and why isn't there more interest in doing so?" These are some of the questions that will serve as the new focus of the charter school debate, Hage says.

He's correct. The discourse has moved on and crossed party lines. Every legislator, school board member, and teachers' union official needs to recognize this, and work constructively to enhance the charter school movement.

Kingsley Guy's column appears every other Sunday. Email him at Harborlite3@bellsouth.net.

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