The public education system in our country has been undergoing a profound structural change with the establishment of charter schools. Heated debates have arisen concerning the educational value, efficacy and fairness of charter schools. Setting those issues aside, here is the minimum you need to know:

A. What is a Florida Charter School?

A charter school is a public school that operates pursuant to a “charter,” which is a detailed written agreement between the charter school’s governing board and the school’s sponsor. The charter is a contract containing the school’s mission, programs, goals, students served and the methods of assessment. Most charters are for a five-year period.

A charter school must be a nonprofit organization overseen by a governing board. The board negotiates with the county school district, which acts as the school sponsor if the application is approved.

B. Student Eligibility

Students residing within the public school district are eligible to attend any charter school. However, charter schools may give preference to students within specific ages or grade levels, students at risk of dropping out, students with poor reading skills, those residing near the charter school and others meeting reasonable academic or artistic standards.

C. Charter School Exemptions

Florida has exempted charter schools from many of the Florida K-20 Education Code provisions. However, those provisions of the Florida Education Code pertaining to student assessment and school grading, services to students with disabilities, civil rights, student health, safety and welfare and maximum class size are all applicable to charter schools. Laws governing public records, public meetings and public inspections are also applicable. Teachers must be state certified though school administrators need not be.

D. Charter School Oversight

As previously stated, a potential charter school must file an application with the local school district. The application must contain specific examples of how the school intends to fulfill its guiding principles, a detailed curriculum, goals and objectives for improving student learning, a separate reading curricula and an annual financial plan.

Each year, charter schools are assigned a school grade under the same criteria and elements applied to other public schools. The school sponsor has the authority to close a charter school if it does not comply with the terms of its charter, violates applicable law or does not fulfill standards for fiscal management.

E. Charter School Funding

Florida Education Finance Program (FEFP) funds public schools, including charter schools, through a complex funding formula. Suffice it to say, charter schools receive a proportionate share of FEFP funds. Charter schools are also eligible to receive capital facilities funding based upon a formula. To be eligible for capital funding, the charter school must have operated for three or more years, be accredited, and meet other financial and student achievement criteria.

The sponsoring school district is obligated to provide various administrative and educational services to charter schools. However, the school district may charge for some of these services up to a cap. Like other public schools, charter schools participate in the school district’s transportation program.

F. Summary

Potential charter school advocates must navigate many legal and educational hurdles, both before and after the issuance of a charter. Running a charter school is complex, but with some homework and legal guidance, may prove beneficial to the students and community served.