Gary Chartrand: Ensure low-income students have access to high-quality ‘Schools of Hope’

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Let’s seize this opportunity to put students ahead of bureaucracy.

Imagine a school system where 100% of graduates each year for 15 years were accepted into college.

Now imagine that this school system is not for the elite, instead serving low-income students in failing schools. Of the nearly 1,500 graduating seniors in the class of 2021, nearly 1,100 were the first in their family to attend college.

This school system exists. It’s IDEA Public Schools which has changed thousands of lives in Texas since it was founded nearly two decades ago.

Florida created the “Schools of Hope” program in 2017 to entice high-quality public charter school operators like IDEA to serve students in the Sunshine State.

These schools, however, are burdened by unnecessary bureaucracy that traditional public schools don’t face, threatening to limit how many low-income students can benefit from this learning option.

To solve this problem, lawmakers are working right now in Tallahassee to eliminate that red tape and liberate Schools of Hope from pointless constraints so they can focus on what matters: creating opportunity and supporting student success.

I have been a longtime advocate for public charter schools in Florida because I’ve seen firsthand the way they can transform a student’s future. I’m so convinced about the effectiveness of charter schools that my wife and I helped bring the first KIPP charter school to Florida.

The demand for a charter school education has grown since Florida first introduced families to this option two decades ago. Today, more than 340,000 students are attending a charter; yet thousands remain on waiting lists.

The myths around charter schools continue to be circulated by special interests. Charters are simply alternative public schools. Just like traditional public schools, they are funded by tax dollars and must comply with accountability requirements.

But unlike most traditional schools, they have flexibility to customize their curriculum to meet certain objectives, like preparing their students for college, fostering character development or strengthening skills training.

Charter schools give families a choice when it comes to public education, an alternative to the traditional school to which they are geographically assigned. And many charter schools have proven to have a positive impact on students, yielding higher test scores, higher graduation rates and higher college acceptance rates than other schools in the same geographic region.

With increasing demand and a need for quality schools in underserved areas, Florida’s leaders created the “Schools of Hope” program in 2017 to attract nonprofit charter school operators with a proven record of successfully educating lower-income students to the Sunshine State.

The Schools of Hope would quite literally provide an escape route for students trapped in low-performing schools.

To date, Florida has approved five nonprofits to operate as Schools of Hope: Mater Academy, Democracy Prep Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Somerset Academy and KIPP.  Absent excessive regulation, these operators have the potential to establish another 50 campuses across Florida within the next five years and serve as many as 48,000 students in the Sunshine State.

Lawmakers committed to funding Schools of Hope to ensure more high-quality operators would come to Florida. They need to keep that commitment.

And legislation proposed by Sen. Aaron Bean (Fernandina Beach) and Rep. David Smith (Winter Springs) – SB 1622 and HB 1061 – would help streamline accountability measures, increase transparency about facilities available to Schools of Hope and break down current barriers to their growth, expediting the process to open high-quality schools.

Every student in Florida deserves a quality education, and families should have choices when it comes to what school is best for their child. Strengthening Florida’s Schools of Hope program would expand options for underserved students and close equity gaps.

Let’s seize this opportunity to put students ahead of bureaucracy and ensure quality learning options are available where they are needed most.

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Gary Chartrand is a trustee of the Foundation for Florida’s Future, the former chair of the Florida Board of Education and former chairman of the board, and current board member, of KIPP Schools Jacksonville.

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