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I-Team: Lawmakers React To Charter School FCAT Failures

MIAMI (CBS4) - When Governor Rick Scott visited Florida International Academy - a charter school -  in Opa Locka in January, he brought his special advisor on education, Michell Rhee, with him.

Rhee, the controversial former superintendent of the Washington DC school system, is a big believer in spending public money on privately-operated charter schools.

"Who are we to deny a child, a low income child, who has the opportunity to take the same dollars and actually get a better education?" Rhee asked.

The answer may in fact be that kids in charter schools aren't getting a better education.

When it comes to the failure rate, charter Schools - operated at public expense by private companies - tanked on the 2011 FCAT.   And an explanation provided by a major charter school booster does not appear to make the grade.

The numbers, first reported by CBS4 News Tuesday, are striking:

Of Florida's 2,280 public elementary and middle schools, only 17 scored an "F" on the FCAT.  Of the state's 270 Charter elementary and middle schools, 15 flunked.

Charter schools had a failure rate 740% higher than that of public schools.

Charter school boosters were working damage control Wednesday.

"Traditionally, they (the charters that failed) were in failing school neighborhoods," said Representative Erik Fresen, a Miami Republican who sits on several education committees and is a strong supporter of charter schools.

Fresen said that a rule that requires charter schools to give the FCAT in their first year of operation accounts for most of the failure rate.

"They started as an "F" because they inherited, essentially, "F" performing students," Fresen said.

Fresen's defense, however, does not appear to wash.

CBS4's analysis of the 15 charter schools that failed show at least nine have administered the test for at least two years.  Some saw their grades plunge from an "A" to an "F."  At least two had back-to-back "F" grades, including Broward Community Charter Middle School and Lawrence Academy Elementary Charter School in Miami-Dade.

Fresen, whose sister and brother-in-law own a charter school management company, Academica, said he sees no conflict between that and his leadership role in education in the legislature.

"It certainly provides me a different perspective...that others perhaps don't have," Fresen said.  "But it certainly doesn't influence the politics one way or the other."

At least five companies involved in charter school management contributed the maximum allowable donation to Fresen's most recent election campaign.

Democratic state lawmakers say the explosion of publicly-funded, privately-operated schools is a growing drain on the public education system.

"People need to get out of the business of profiting from public education," said Rep. Dwight Bullard of Miami.

Rep. Luis Garcia, a Little Havana Democrat, agreed.

"The present policies that....state government is taking seem to be attacking public education in favor of for-profit - to the extreme," Garcia said.

CBS4 News Producer Jeremy Jacobson contributed to this report.

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