This week, PLF filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the School Board of Palm Beach County illegally denied an application to start a new charter school. Charter schools are privately run public schools that operate under a performance contract (charter) with a public sponsor (usually a school district). Charter schools operate free from many state laws and regulations so that they have more freedom and flexibility to tailor their programs to their students and to focus on providing students with the best education possible. Unlike traditional public schools that enroll students based on their home addresses, parents must affirmatively choose to enroll their children in charter schools. Charter schools must therefore compete with neighborhood schools for students by providing families with a better option that meets the needs of their children. But some school boards don’t like the competition and illegally deny charter applications.
After fretting about the fact that existing district schools would have to compete with the proposed charter school, the School Board of Palm Beach County rejected the application to start the South Palm Beach Charter School, claiming that the school lacks “innovation” and fails to fulfill the state charter statute’s requirement that charter schools “[e]ncourage the use of innovative learning methods.” The charter school applicant appealed to the State Board of Education, which held that the application should have been approved. But the School Board has appealed to Florida’s Fourth District Court of Appeal, claiming that charter schools must provide students with an education that is more innovative than traditional district schools and that to be innovative, a school must employ an instructional model that is different from existing district schools.
PLF’s brief explains that the school board’s arguments violate the letter and the intent of the charter school statute. The statute requires schools to “[e]ncourage the use of innovative learning methods.” A school can “encourage” innovation in different ways, without necessarily being new or unique. For example, a school can give teachers freedom to experiment with innovative approaches in their classrooms, or it can provide professional development training in such methods. But even if the statute required charter schools themselves to be innovative, the School Board’s argument would still fail. “Innovative” means “introducing or using new ideas or methods” or “having new ideas about how something can be done.” And “new” may be defined as “modern” or “recent.” Other Florida statutes also define “innovative” as a willingness to experiment and explore a variety of models. None of these definitions support the School Board’s claim that the statute requires charter schools to be more innovative than existing schools or to use untested or “different” methods than existing schools. Indeed, the Florida Legislature amended the charter statute in 2002 to strike a previous requirement that charter schools encourage the use of different learning methods. If that were not enough proof, Florida law actually encourages successful charter schools to duplicate their programs, making it easier for high-performing charter schools to open a new school that replicates the existing model.
Instead of fearing competition, School Boards should fully embrace charter schools. Charter schools allow parents to hold traditional public schools accountable, which improves educational outcomes for students in traditional public schools. In this way charter schools actually encourage innovation in traditional public schools, too. Simultaneously, charter schools are also improving educational outcomes for their own students, especially minority students and students from low-income households. That’s why approximately 86,000 students were on wait lists last year to attend one of Florida’s 650 charter schools. Hopefully the court’s decision in this case will allow more students to get off of a wait list and attend the school of their choice.