Archives for category: Florida

The Florida Education Association filed suit to block the expansion of vouchers. In their legal challenge, the teachers’ union said the law was passed at the last minute and “violates the constitutional requirement that legislative proposals be limited to a single subject.”

“The lawsuit from the Florida Education Association raises concerns about the way SB 850 became law. Some of the bill’s more contentious provisions, including the voucher expansion and the scholarship accounts, started out as stand-alone proposals that had difficulty finding support. They were added to a bill establishing collegiate high schools on the second-to-last day of the legislative session.”

In 2012, Florida voters turned down a proposal to change the state constitution to permit vouchers by a margin of 58-42.

After Secretary of Education Arne Duncan announced new rules for special education, requiring higher standards and more testing for students with disabilities, many teachers and parents debated this course of action on the blog. This teacher in Florida offered some real-life experience to inform the debate and, perhaps, the Secretary:

“Let me start by saying that I am an ESE teacher. I teach students with learning disabilities and language impairments. The students I have are in the unit they are in because they are at least two grade levels below their regular ed peers in reading.

“Currently, in Florida, we already have to give these students access to the same standards that their on-grade level peers enjoy. That has been the case for years. We already know that Florida tests pretty much everyone, no matter their disability. Again, this has been the case for years. I can’t believe that in this education environment that there are many other states that are significantly different. And yet, Arne is going to say that these students aren’t getting a quality education? That they aren’t held to high expectations?

To me, it is pretty obvious that these students are held to much higher expectations than their regular ed peers. It would be like telling two mountain climbers that they have to reach the same peak, but one of them will do it with both hands tied behind his back. Sure, he can have some accommodations. Someone can hold his rope steady. Someone else can yell out supportive verbal encouragement. He can even take longer breaks, and we’ll take away any time requirement (as long as he finishes in the same day that he started).

“The world of special ed was already insane. I’m not sure where this takes us. As I said, in my class, the students are all at least two years behind in reading. What I didn’t tell you is that I teach in an elementary school. What this means is that many of these 3-5th graders are non-readers. The few that can decode are either doing so at a kindergarten/first grade level or at a level approaching grade level but without any comprehension whatsoever of what they have just decoded. Despite this, they have the same designation on paper (or computer) that other LD kids have who are just slightly behind their regular ed peers.

“In Florida, as I imagine is the case in other states, we already track academic progress. You might think it would be as easy as seeing what they are capable of doing at the beginning of the year and then comparing that with what they are capable of at the end of the year. Not so. Remember, they are working on the same standards as their regular ed peers. And, so, they are tested with the same tests that their regular ed peers take. This means that a fourth grader who cannot read anything above “see sam run” is being tested on those “rigorous” non-fiction passages that are on a fourth grade level (not the fourth grade level of yesteryear but the new, improved 6th grade, I mean 4th grade level of today). And then we track their progress on a graph. If you’re thinking that these graphs look like random peaks and valleys, you are correct. When you cannot read and you are given a test, you are just going to guess. Which is what these students do. Sadly, they have become so inured to this that they guess on the few items that they actually are capable of doing.

“The federal government is already involved through NCLB, etc. These students count towards AYP. They count towards the school’s “grade.” The schools have every reason to give these students everything they’ve got, so why aren’t the slackers doing anything to give them a “quality education”? Well, they are. Florida is an RtI state. To get an ESE label, a student has to show that they are “resistant to interventions.” That is, they have to show that they require extensive interventions, that if they are weaned off of the interventions, they regress. Or, they have to show that despite intensive, research-based interventions, they are still showing no progress. In other words, before these students come to me, they have already received every intervention imaginable. In addition, even after they are found eligible for ESE services, they are usually started in a less restrictive environment. If none of this has worked, why should it work when they get to my class? Indeed, it had to be shown that it did not work in order for them to get into my class in the first place.

“Alas, I’m afraid I do not have a magic wand or a bag of pixie dust with which to work miracles. So, what is an ESE teacher to do? Most of us actually work with the studennts where they are at. And we move them forward from there. There is no huge spurt of growth (very rarely anyway), but they do make academic gains. None of these gains will show up on the regular ed grade level assessments, but they are there nonetheless. We’ve often wondered why these students aren’t given meaningful assessments that will show growth and that will actually tell us where these students are still struggling (thanks, FCAT, I already knew they couldn’t read on grade level). Now we know why. It’s to show that these students aren’t getting a “quality education.”

“I would tell you that these students, who are as bright as you or me, struggle immensely with academic subjects. That they are usually Language Impaired as well. That most of them are also ESOL students. That most of them come from low SES homes. That most of them come from single-parent households. That many of these parents come in to thank us because their child used to hate school and now they want to go. That their regular ed teachers in the past told us that they wouldn’t do anything in class, that they would shut down when anything was required of them, and now they are working in class. That through a lot of hard work and effort of both the teachers and students, the students get to a point where they stop saying, “I can’t do this, I’m stupid.” That non-writers become independent writers (legible despite the many spelling, grammar, and convention errors). That non-readers become readers (yes, still way behind their regular ed peers) and learn to enjoy reading. I would tell you these things, but it doesn’t matter because none of it shows up on the tests. The tests show that these students are not making any gains. And, as we all know, there are no excuses.”

In state after state, charter schools are proving that it is downright risky to turn public money over to deregulated corporations and unqualified individuals to run schools. The Detroit Free Press series on the scams, frauds, and corruption in many Michigan charters was an eye-opener for all those who are not part of the charter movement. The exposé of similar frauds in Florida by the League of Women Voters in Florida was enlightening to anyone other than free market ideologues. The same level of corruption–actually, even worse–exists in Ohio’s charter sector, where a small number of charter founders have become multi-millionaires, run low-performing schools, and are never held accountable.

One of the most colorful charter scandals occurred when a Cleveland charter operator was tried for funneling over $1million to his church and other businesses. The charter founder was a pastor, not an educator. His attorney said ““his client had good intentions when opening the school on East 55th Street but then got greedy when he saw easy opportunities to make money….”

The leader of California’s most celebrated charter school, with outstanding test scores, stepped down when an audit revealed that nearly $4 million had been diverted to his other businesses.

In Arizona, the Arizona Republic exposed charters that were family businesses, giving contracts to family members and board members.

In Chicago, the head of the city’s largest charter chain resigned after the media reported large contracts given to family members of school leaders and other conflicts of interest and misuse of public funds.

Last week, one of Connecticut’s most celebrated charter organizations was at the center of the latest scandal. Its CEO was revealed to have a criminal past and a falsified résumé. Two top executives immediately resigned, and legislators and journalists began to ask questions. No background checks? Accountability? Transparency?

Colin McEnroe wrote in the Hartford Courant’s blog that hustlers were cashing in on the charter school craze. Not just in Connecticut, but in Michigan, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, California, Ohio, Arizona, on and on.

McEnroe wrote:

“The message is always the same: The essential concept behind the charter school movement is that, freed from the three Rs — restraints, rules and regulations — these schools could innovate and get the kinds of results that calcified, logy public schools could only dream about. And they do … sometimes.

“But handing out uncountable millions to operators who would be given a free hand was also like putting a big sign out by the highway that says “Welcome Charlatans, Grifters, Credential-Fakers, Cherry-Pickers, Stat-Jukers, Cult of Personality Freaks and People Who Have No Business Running a Dairy Queen, Much Less a School.” And they’ve all showed up. This is the Promised Land: lots of cash and a mission statement that implicitly rejects the notion of oversight…..

“What else goes with those big bubbling pots of money? A new layer of lobbyists and donation-bundlers. The Free Press documented the way a lawmaker who dared to make a peep of protest against charter schools getting whatever they want suddenly found himself in a race against a challenger heavily funded by the Great Lakes Education Project, the “powerhouse lobby” of the Michigan charter movement. Jon Lender of The Courant recently showed how one family of charter school advocates had crammed $90,000 into Connecticut Democratic Party coffers.”

If there were more investigations, more charter scandals would be disclosed.

When will public officials call a halt to the scams, conflicts of interest, self-dealing, nepotism, and corruption?

There is one defensible role for charter schools and that is to do what public schools can’t do. There is no reason to create a dual school system, with one free to choose its students and to cherry pick the best students, while the other must take all students. There is no reason to give charters to non-educators. There is no reason to allow charter operators to pocket taxpayer dollars for their own enrichment while refusing to be fully accountable for how public money is spent. Where public money goes, public accountability must follow.

The following article is by Patricia W. Hall, chair of the League of Women Voters Education team in Hillsborough County, Florida. It was originally published by La Gaceta in Tampa, Florida. The state League of Women Voters recently published a one-year study of charters across Florida.

Charter School Explosion: Follow the Money

Patricia W. Hall

Although charter schools must, by Florida law, be overseen by a non -profit board of directors, there are many ways in which for-profit organizations have begun to highjack the charter school movement. For-profit management companies frequently provide everything from back office operations including payroll, contracting with vendors for food services, textbook, etc., to hiring principals and teachers and curriculum control; so what was sold to parents and children as a local public education innovation now looks more like national charter-chains, the “Waltmartization” of public education. According to education expert Diane Ravitch, “nearly half of all charter school students are enrolled in a charter chain school” in the United States. The top four charter operators in Florida for 2011-2012 were Academica (72), Charter Schools USA (37), Charter School Associates (20), and Imagine Schools (23). These are not the small, locally run experimental schools envisioned by the original legislation.

The real profits, however, are not in the operation of the charter school, but in the real estate development. After receiving a variety of grants, loans and tax credits for building a charter school, the for- profit chain charges ever escalating rents and leases to the school district, paid by tax-payer education dollars. The for-profit then reaps the profits when the building is sold in a few years. Meanwhile the properties with high, non-taxable, values based on claimed “commercial” revenue streams from public tax-payer dollars are leveraged to borrow additional funds to build more school buildings.

Our shining local examples in Hillsborough County are owned by Charter Schools USA. My first glimpse of Winthrop Charter School in Riverview in November of 2011 was during a scheduled visit with then Rep. Rachel Burgin. When told the two story brick building was a charter school, I was mystified. The site on which it was built was purchased from John Sullivan by Ryan Construction Company, Minneapolis, MN. From research done by the League of Women Voters of Florida all school building purchases ultimately owned and managed by for-profit Charter Schools USA are initiated by Ryan Construction. The Winthrop site was sold to Ryan Co. in March, 2011 for $2,206,700. In September, 2011 the completed 50,000 square foot building was sold to Red Apple Development Company, LLC for $9,300,000 titled as are all schools managed by Charter Schools USA. Red Apple Development is the school development arm of Charter Schools USA. We, tax payers of Hillsborough County, have paid $969,000 and $988,380 for the last two years to Charter Schools USA in lease fees!

The big prize purchased by Ryan Co. at the same time, March of 2011, was the 58,000 square foot former Verizon call center on 56th Street in Temple Terrace for $3,750,000. Ryan Co. made no discernible exterior changes except removal of the front door, added a $7,000 canopy and sold the building as Woodmont Charter School to Red Apple Development for $9,700,000! Who would not love a $6 million dollar boost in 6 months? Lease fees for the last two years were $1,009,800 and $1,029,996! Are we outraged yet? Woodmont made headlines in the Tampa Bay Times this spring as an “F” rated (FCAT score) school advertising for new students and a fired teacher reporting that out-of-field teachers and uncertified teachers were on the faculty.

Similar figures exist for the last of the triumvirate for CSUSA, Henderson Hammock Charter School in Citrus Park which opened in 2012. Their lease fees are the largest of the three, $1,170,000 for 2012-3013 and $1,193,400 for 2013-2014!

These three Hillsborough schools opened since 2011 enroll more than 20% (2,799) of all charter students: Winthrop – 1,254; Henderson Hammock-895; and Woodmont-650. The other for-profit management companies in our county are Charter School Associates with 10 schools, the Leona Group with two small schools and Accelerated Learning Solutions with two virtual (online instruction) high schools. These four for-profit management companies, including Charter Schools USA, control the finances for 17 of the 42 charter schools in Hillsborough County.

In Florida, according to the League of Women Voters Statewide Charter School Study, the three largest for-profit management companies (Academica, Charter Schools USA and Imagine) control 27% of all charters. The proposed MacDill Charter School was rejected by Hillsborough County Schools because of questions regarding governance (the people running the school) which will be covered in the next article.

The high per student management fees (around $450 ) plus rent/lease fees (at least 20% of the total school budget) mean that there is less funding available for “instruction,” including teacher salaries, books, etc. In Florida Trend Magazine, Jonathan Hage, CEO of Charter Schools USA, brags his biggest efficiency is in administration. Where Miami-Dade County spends $2,036 per child on administrative costs, he spends $1,425. In Hillsborough that equates to 2,799 children times $1,425 equaling $3,988,575! That is money in his “pockets,” not instructing children who need to be educated.

In addition to direct funding of charter schools, the federal government provides tax breaks to encourage banks and individuals to invest in charter school construction. The Community Renewal Tax Relief Act of 2000 included the New Markets Tax Credit, which provides wealthy investors with a 39% tax credit that more than doubles returns on these charter school construction investments within seven years. Furthermore the head of Entertainment Properties Trust – a large real estate investment firm – David Bain, appeared on CNBC in 2012 telling the audience “how profitable charter school investment has become.”

While you are shaking your head at the implausibility of the aforementioned investment, hold on! The Immigrant Investor Program, also known as EB -5 (Employment Based to the 5 Category) Program permits foreigners who make investments in charter schools to bring their whole family to the U.S. on green cards! Wealthy foreigners can contribute just $1,000,000 toward urban charter school development or $500,000 in a rural area, they are required to create 10 jobs for Americans and the investor gets visas for the whole family!

We discovered that Ryan Construction Company, in collaboration with Red Apple Development and the Florida Development Finance Corporation, secured a mortgage and loan agreement for multiple sites with Regions Bank in Tallahassee for $55,800,000 tax-exempt series (the “Series 2012A Bonds”) and $3,520,000 taxable series (the Series 2012B Bonds ). This transaction was November 1, 2012. Red Apple Development had secured a mortgage from Church Loans and Investments Trust dba CLI Capital in Texas for $9,841,000 for the Woodmont Property in late 2011; they paid off the nearly $10,000,000 mortgage in 16 months (January of 2013) by virtue of the $55,800,000 “windfall”.

From The Tampa Bay Times opinion editorial April 1st, 2014 “Another area where the distinction between public and private is blurred for the benefit of for-profits is the issuing of bonds. Although Florida law prohibits charter schools from issuing bonds, Charter Schools USA has found a way. When naming Jon Hage as Floridian of the Year, Florida Trend in December 2012 contended that Charter School USA is the largest seller of charter school debt in the country. “It will sell $100 million worth of bonds this year (2012-13), Hage says. . . The bonds come with tax-exempt status because they are technically held by the non-profit founding boards that oversee the schools.”

As you can see “following the money” in the for- profit charter sector is very complex and, in some cases, impossible. Audits are incomplete and, because of the blurred line between the non-profit and for-profit entities, requests for information are rebuffed, as these charter chains claim to be “public” when seeking public education dollars and “private when avoiding accountability. As one of our LWV members characterizes their attitude, “Heads we win, tails you lose.”

America’s for-profit education industry is BIG BUSINESS on a global scale. Charter school profiteering is alive and thriving in Florida and many other states. Profit is the end game with profits trumping public good. What happened to “corporate social responsibility” and political ethics??

Charter schools have been the beneficiary of a myth, the myth that a free market in schooling will produce miraculous results. Unfortunately, like most myths, it is not true. Deregulation translates into lack of supervision and oversight. In the absence of supervision of public funds, scams, frauds, and corruption flourish.

Jeff Bryant here reviews some of the egregious examples of charter school corruption in Ohio, Michigan, and Florida. Billions of taxpayer dollars are being transferred to the private sector, where no one supervises how those dollars are spent. Worse, the businesses that get the money spend large sums to hire lobbyists and to contribute to key legislators to make sure their charters remain free of oversight.

It is alarming that Congress is about to hand more money over to the same shady entrepreneurs and to encourage more of them to jump into the unregulated, very profitable charter industry.

The Sun-Sentinel in Florida published a scathing series about charter school scandals, made possible by lax laws and almost no supervision.

“Unchecked charter-school operators are exploiting South Florida’s public school system, collecting taxpayer dollars for schools that quickly shut down.

“A recent spate of charter-school closings illustrates weaknesses in state law: virtually anyone can open or run a charter school and spend public education money with near impunity, a Sun Sentinel investigation found.

“Florida requires local school districts to oversee charter schools but gives them limited power to intervene when cash is mismanaged or students are deprived of basic supplies — even classrooms.

“Once schools close, the newspaper found, districts struggle to retrieve public money not spent on students.

“Among the cases the newspaper reviewed:

• An Oakland Park man received $450,000 in tax dollars to open two new charter schools just months after his first collapsed. The schools shuttled students among more than four locations in Broward County, including a park, an event hall and two churches. The schools closed in seven weeks.

• A Boca Raton woman convicted of taking kickbacks when she ran a federal meal program was hired to manage a start-up charter school in Lauderdale Lakes.

• A Coral Springs man with a history of foreclosures, court-ordered payments, and bankruptcy received $100,000 to start a charter school in Margate. It closed in two months.

• A Hollywood company that founded three short-lived charters in Palm Beach and Collier counties will open a new school this fall. The two Palm Beach County schools did not return nearly $200,000 they owe the district.”

Governor Rick Scott signed legislation to expand the state’s voucher program, despite the opposition of the state’s PTA associations, the NAACP, the teachers’ unions, and the League of United Latin American Citizens. Critics said the vouchers would drain resources from public schools. The voucher expansion was a high priority for former Governor Jeb Bush, who is a power in the state.

Rita Solnet, president of the Florida chapter of Parents Across America, said:

“Voucher schools will not be held to Florida’s Common Core curriculum nor will they have to deliver its associated, highly trumpeted, high stakes tests that 2.6 M other FL students endure. No merit pay, no need to pursue credentialed teachers, no accountability for $3 billion of public tax dollars.

“Had the Governor not signed SB 850 today, the voucher program would have still grown to nearly $1 billion anyways with the escalators built in.

“Something is very wrong when the agency services 59K students in primarily religious schools and they admittedly provided false numbers for an alleged wait list. Something is very wrong when their non profit president is on video admitting to giving away a million dollars each year to legislators who favor voucher programs.

“Siphoning $3 billion away from 2.6 M students is shameful.”

Parents and educators are urging Governor Rick Scott to veto the expansion of vouchers, which drains money from public schools.

Scott is up for re-election.

“Members of the Florida PTA, grass roots parent groups, the Florida Conference of NAACP, the League of United Latin American Citizens and the statewide teachers union have launched a campaign against the bill, which they say will drain taxpayer dollars from already cash-strapped public schools.

“We stand united in our opposition to voucher expansion,” said Mindy Gould, who oversees legislative affairs for the PTA. “The governor needs to know that…..

“Other groups involved in the campaign against the proposal include the Florida School Boards Association, the League of Women Voters, the Spanish American League Against Discrimination, and the Sant Le Haitian Neighborhood Service Center in Miami, according to the PTA.”

Scott, a conservative who supports privatization, has until June 28 to act.

Florida has a voucher for program for students with disabilities, called McKay scholarships. A story in Florida’s “Sun-Sentinel” revealed that a sizable number of these students with vouchers attend schools that do not have any full-time teachers with special education training or certification.

Dan Sweeney of the “Sun-Sentinel” writes:

“Learning disabled students can get up to $19,829 of taxpayer money each year to attend private school if they choose – but there is no state accountability to ensure the kids’ needs are being met.

“The law that created the vouchers does not require private schools to have anyone on staff with any sort of certification in dealing with children with learning disabilities. Nor are there public controls in place to check whether the schools are helping them.

“In Palm Beach County, 1,232 children receive $8.5 million in state voucher money. How much they get depends on on the severity of their disabilities, with amounts ranging from $4,125 to $19,829.

“There are 59 private schools in the county that accept the vouchers – and at least 28 of them don’t have full-time special education teachers.

“If someone wants to pay for a school that has no standards out of their own pocket, they’re free to do that. This is America,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of Fund Education Now, an organization that advocates for public education in the state of Florida. “But when you’re taking public dollars and you’re putting them into these private schools that are not regulated and have no obligation to meet the same standards that we impose on our public schools, that’s when the public should become concerned.”

And Sweeney adds:

“The voucher law only requires that private school teachers pass a background check and have a bachelor’s degree and three years of teaching experience or “special skills, knowledge, or expertise that qualifies them to provide instruction in subjects taught.”

“There is no limit on how many students can receive the McKay scholarship – it is solely based on need.

“To qualify, kids need to be on an Individual Education Plan, which sets educational goals for a child and allows for specialized instruction.

“But “once the family leaves the district on a McKay scholarship to a private school, the [plan] is no longer valid. Private schools are not required to follow the [plan] created by district personnel,” said Cheryl Etters, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Education.

“And nobody from the state or district checks to see if the children’s’ needs are being met.”

This is not the first time that a reporter has called attention to the bsence of oversight or regulation of the McKay scholarship program.

In 2011, reporter Gus Garcia-Roberts wrote a blistering exposé of the program, which he called “a cottage industry of fraud and chaos,” sending millions of public dollars to voucher schools that lacked curriculum or qualified staff. Garcia-Roberts won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service journalism for the story. But the McKay program continues to be unregulated, unsupervised, and one in which public funds follow students to schools un equipped to meet their needs.

Peter Greene here picks apart an article by Patricia Levesque defending the Common Core, testing, and accountability.

Who is Patricia Levesque? She is CEO of Jeb Bush’s organization called the Foundation for Educational Excellence. It is safe to assume that she speaks for Jeb Bush in celebrating the Flrida miracle, Common Core, and the immense value of standardized testing and accountability.

Levesque is critical of those who question the value of a one-shot standardized test or the value of holding teachers accountable for their students’ test scores.

This, he writes, is what he learned from Levesque:

“Student success depends on testing and accountability. Not teaching. Not learning. Not supportive homes. Not a supportive classroom environment. Not good pedagogical technique. Not a positive, nurturing relationship with a teacher. Just tests. Tests with big fat punishments attache to failure.

“Perhaps what we need is an all-test district. Every day students file in, receive their punishments for the previous test results, take a new test. I mean, if testing is the whole key to learning, the whole key to a successful life itself, then why are we wasting classroom time on anything else? Let’s just test, all day, every day. “

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