Charter School Conversion in Broward to Fight Special Ed Closure

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May 26, 2014; Miami Herald

Typically, the storyline is that charter schools are somehow linked to the phenomenon of closing public schools. One report tallies the closings of public schools in cities such as Washington, D.C. (39 since 2008), Houston (32 since 2003), and Chicago (111 since 2001, including 49 just last year). All are cities where the closings have been accompanied by a growth in the number of charter schools—but nothing like New Orleans, in which 84 of the city’s 89 public schools have been closed or converted to charter schools. Part of the complaint is that charters tend not to be community-based and often refuse to enroll children with disabilities or special needs.

In one instance in Broward County, Florida, according to Michael Vasquez reporting for the Miami Herald, the circumstances appear to be different. The Broward public school district had proposed closing the Wingate Oaks Center school in Fort Lauderdale, but parents and teachers protested and organized to re-establish Wingate Oaks as a charter school.

The conversion of Wingate Oaks is distinctive. It is a special needs school, one of six in the school system that administrators wanted to consolidate into four. One of the schools, the Sunset school, was closed, but Wingate parents argued against Wingate’s closure and the relocation of their children.

“The district postponed closing Wingate Oaks after parents made impassioned arguments against the relocations, which in some cases would force medically fragile children to endure bus rides of more than an hour to get to school,” Vasquez reported. “Some students are in wheelchairs; others need help going to the bathroom. Parent David Martinez’s daughter gets her nourishment through a feeding tube.”

Postponing wasn’t enough for the Wingate parents, as the Broward administrators chose to limit enrollment to current pupils. Parents saw this as a means of “slow death” for the school. That prompted the proposed conversion, with a plan to increase enrollment over five years from 87 (when and if it begins operating as a charter) to 168 students. Currently, there are fewer than 60 pupils at Wingate.

It isn’t clear from the article where Broward stands on charter schools, but in nearby Miami-Dade, the local school district seems to consider charter conversions as hostile toward traditional public schools. If Broward were to reject the Wingate charter application, the Wingate parents and teachers could appear to the state board of education, which has tended to be supportive of charter schools.

Typically, in other locales and even in Florida, charter school conversion is seen as an attempt to escape from the public school system. In this case, the Wingate parents appear to have wanted to stay in the system; it was the Broward district administrators who wanted to close this facility for children with disabilities. “It would never have happened if the district would not have run to the route of trying to close a school,” said Nathalie Adams, who chairs the district’s Exceptional Student Education Advisory Council, a parent group. “They can just blame themselves.”—Rick Cohen