9 Investigates charter school grading system

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ORLANDO, Fla. - In 2012 it took back-to-back F grades from the state for Orange County Public Schools to finally shut down Rio Grande Charter School.

While letter grades from the state are a far from perfect metric for measuring school performance, they are the only system in place to gauge schools and the only way to close a charter.

The State of Florida gives all charter schools a three year grace period where they do not receive a letter grade, although they are still evaluated. After the three-year grace period, underperforming charter schools can stay open for another 18 months while the school district goes through the process of closing them down; all while the school continues to receive state and federal tax dollars.

In 2011, almost half of all failing grades handed out by the state went to charter schools. In 2012, 34 percent of all failing grades went to charters, yet they only make up 15 percent of the state's schools.

During that same time, five charters received termination letters all while receiving an average of $930,000 from the state.

"It's desperately important that we do our homework," said Lake County School Board member Bill Mathias. "We can't afford to lose a child for three years."

Mathias sits on both the Lake County School Board and on the board of a Lake County charter school.

For years, Mathias has been a vocal advocate of charter schools and school choice, but said in recent years he has become concerned about the lack of accountability at charter schools, noting that the field of charter schools in Florida tend to either be high performing or low performing.

"There seems to be this large disparity between those that do well and those that don't," said Mathias.

"We look at the application and make the best judgment we can," said Lake County Director of Community Education Dr. Maggie Teachout. "A lot of these people don't have a track record."

Lake County, which is in the midst of massive budget cuts, has comprised a committee of 14 to review every charter application.

In October, based on the recommendation of that committee, the board voted to reject a new charter application amid concerns that the school did not have a plan for such basic things as transportation, meals, technology and payroll.

While schools have requested more oversight for charters, currently there is only one bill filed in Tallahassee for the 2014 legislative session that deals with charters, but it does not deal with financial oversight, only transfers for students.

Charter schools point out that many charters take at-risk students or are schools of last resort for academically struggling students and that is why the letter grades tend to be lower than public schools where those same students are absorbed into the larger population.