Gussie Lorenzo-Luaces and three classmates at Deer Park Elementary in Tampa, Florida wanted to find what sort of paper allows a paper airplane to fly the farthest. After five trial runs, they determined copy paper, with its smooth surface and stable weight, worked best.
The boys’ exhibit was among more than 1,800 presented at February’s annual Hillsborough Regional STEM Fair,  which featured 2,000 students from district schools, charter and private schools, and home schools—the most ever, organizers said.
That diversity was a big plus for Gussie’s mom, Susie: “They don’t need separation. I like seeing them all together.’’
Increasingly, though, Hillsborough students are not all together in academic competitions. In the past year district officials began excluding charter schools from district-wide contests, including Battle of the Books , a reading competition, and the Math Bowl and Math League for elementary and middle school students.
The reasons for this are not clear. People have suggested a variety of possibilities such as cost, fear of competition, and a desire for charter school independence. Such actions point to potential pitfalls as school choice options mushroom across the United States, even in a district with a choice-friendly reputation like Hillsborough.
Although she understands district concerns, said Lillia Stroud, “separation at any level is disheartening.” She directs the King’s Kids Academy of Health Science , a new Tampa charter.
Robert Haag of the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools  said he had not heard any such stories in his home county of Broward or beyond. Dwight Bernard, who oversees 120 charters for Miami-Dade Public Schools , said his district is, if anything, “moving toward more inclusiveness.”
Meanwhile, Mike Kooi, who heads the school choice office for the Florida Department of Education, said he has heard similar stories across the state, but none as complaints directly to his office.
Participation Spikes Expenses
Hillsborough district officials said increasing costs to staff the events and the growing number of charters—43 now, with seven more expected by fall—make it difficult to continue inviting them.
As participation in such events has grown, district expenses have climbed, said Jenna Hodgens, who oversees charter schools for the district. Hillsborough also recently lost a chunk of state money it receives to monitor charters. A law change two years ago reduced the administrative fee for “high-performing charters” from 5 percent to 2 percent.
“The bigger we have grown, the more sense it made to let them do for themselves,” Hodgens said. Despite multiple requests, the district did not provide this writer their costs for the events or estimated savings from excluding charters.
For events the district runs directly, like Battle of the Books, Math Bowl, and Math League, charters are no longer invited. But the district offers to help charters create their own events, said Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
“We want to help them,’’ Elia said, but “charters want to be independent, too.’’
Mixed Response from Charters
Charter leaders offered mixed views. Gary Hocevar, a former president of the Charter Leaders of Florida, said the district’s move was appropriate.
“MaryEllen made the right decision,’’ he said. “She’s not anti-choice. They’re receiving less funding from the state.” With recent cuts, “there was not a thing we could come up with for a compromise.”
Instead, Hocevar advised his charter school peers to create their own competitions. “Invite the traditional schools,” he suggested, “and blow them away.”
Charter school operators held their own Battle of the Books in 2012 and will do so again in May.
“Last year, we had to scramble,” said Catherine Gorman, a media specialist at Advantage Academy of Hillsborough . The school, with 300 elementary students and 150 middle school students, had already ordered the books for the contest when they learned they could not join it. So they created their own.
“If you … do it on your own,” Gorman said, “you can see what went well and make the changes you want.’’
Competition Benefits Everyone
Eventually, charter operators hope to hold math competitions and possibly form a sports league similar to the Florida High School Athletics Association.
Tahvia Shaw of Terrace Community Middle School said the district notified her a week before last school year’s Math League competition that charters could no longer participate. Her parents, whose children had been preparing for months, barraged the district with phone calls. The district relented, and Terrace Community placed first overall.
Heightened competition is good for her school and the district, Shaw said.
Inspiring Young Minds
Five years ago, 150 schools participated in the STEM fair, and the operating budget was $45,000, said Larry Plank, the district’s STEM director. This year, the number of schools doubled and costs rose to $75,000.
District schools each pay a $75 registration fee. Charter schools used to pay the same. But to offset rising costs, they now they pay $150—just like private schools, Plank said.
The Hillsborough Education Foundation hopes to raise enough donations to offer all schools a discount, said its president, Phil Jones.
District administrators said events that lead to state competitions, such as Odyssey of the Mind and Hillsborough’s STEM fair, will still include school choice students. When Hillsborough finalists move up to state, they’ll be from every type of school, said Pam Caffery, a district science education director: “They’ll attend as Team Hillsborough.’’