Florida Voices is a project of the USA TODAY Network-Florida that spotlights the 2018 election issues that matter to Floridians. LEAH VOSS/TCPALMLeah Voss and Leah Voss and Leah Voss and Leah Voss, Treasure Coast
MARTIN COUNTY — A new “classical” charter school is set to open next fall after the School Board Tuesday approved its application during a contentious five-hour meeting.
Residents argued the pros and cons of Treasure Coast Classical Academy before the board voted 4-1 to allow the school to open its doors.
Only board member Tina McSoley voted no, although several others voiced concerns.
“This is not different or unique or innovative to what we are doing in Martin County,” McSoley said as she picked apart the charter school’s application.
Treasure Coast Classical Academy stands to be the fourth Florida school, and 18th nationwide, established through the Hillsdale College Barney Charter School Initiative.
Hillsdale College is a private liberal arts college in Hillsdale, Michigan. The school is a “nonsectarian Christian institution,” according to its website. The Chicago-based Barney Family Foundation is a charitable institution that helps fund the charter-school initiative.
Efforts to open a Hillsdale charter school in Martin County are led by Erika Donalds, a Collier County School Board member who helped launch a Hillsdale site in Naples, and Shawn Frost, chairman of Indian River County School Board.
Residents told the Martin County board Hillsdale College and its arm of charter schools merely are a veiled attempt to drive conservative and religious ideologies. They were apprehensive about tax money going to a school with religious undertones.
Charter schools in Florida are funded in the same fashion as all public schools, receiving state money for operating costs based on their number of full-time students.
Martin County has two charter schools: Clark Advanced Learning Center, a high school for students seeking dual-enrollment courses through Indian River State College, and the Hope Center for Autism, which serves students with autism and similar disabilities.
Other speakers at Tuesday’s meeting worried the charter’s lottery system and lack of student transportation could restrict access for low-income and minority students. One resident pointed to statements from Hilldale President Larry Arnn in 2013, referring to minority students as “dark ones” when state officials visited his Michigan campus to examine enrollment information.
Steve Barney, founder of the Barney Family Foundation, attended Tuesday’s meeting to defend the classical charter school initiative and Treasure Coast Classical Academy.
Hillsdale College is not made up of “evil demons” as people suggested during public comment, Barney said.
Hillsdale charter schools only come to communities when parents reach out, searching for other education options, Barney said. Competition is always good, even among A-rated schools, he said.
“We teach a little differently,” Barney said. “It will probably make the system better.”
McSoley argued portions of the school’s application were written to be persuasive and impressive, but lacked sincerity and meaningful content.
The school is “not innovative, not new, not diverse” compared to what already is offered in Martin County, McSoley said.
Lacking innovation, however, is not grounds to reject a charter school’s application, as Palm Beach County recently learned. A judge last year ruled that School Board was wrong to reject two charter-school applications for not being innovative enough, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.
But that didn’t deter McSoley, who took about 30 minutes to list her issues with the charter school.
“Although by law they are allowed to do all of these things, by law I am allowed to say ‘no’ based on the lack of diversity, the lack of innovation, the lack of financial soundness …,” McSoley said.
While many speakers vehemently opposed Treasure Coast Classical Academy, others said Martin County would be better off with the school. They pointed to successes of other Hillsdale charters, such as Mason Classical Academy in Naples, which Donalds, the Collier County School Board member, founded.
Mason was the Hillsdale’s first Florida charter school when it opened in 2014. The school has been A-rated each year it has been open, according to the Florida Department of Education.
Further, the school’s 2016-17 marks in student achievement and learning gains — improvement from year-to-year — were higher than the state average, both across the board and in all subjects, according to the Department of Education.
Martin County should welcome a school with that sort of track record, said board member Rebecca Negron.
“If Mason Classical Academy … can be the indication of what this school can do, more people will be moving to Martin County,” Negron said.
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