In a two-part article called “Florida’s Charter Schools: Unsupervised,” Karen Yi and Amy Shipley of the Sun-Sentinel describe how the state’s weak laws allows charter school operators in South Florida to profit while wasting taxpayers’ money and children’s lives.
South Florida has more than 260 charter schools. Local districts are supposed to oversee them. The laws about who may open a charter school are lax. Charters open and close, and millions of dollars disappear. Is every charter a fraud? No. But members of the charter sector hold key positions in the state legislature, and the charters are the pride of former Governor Jeb Bush, so there is little effort to rein in the miscreants.
The article begins:
“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.”
The laws were written to make it easy for anyone to open a charter school.
“State law requires local school districts to approve or deny new charters based solely on applications that outline their plans in areas including instruction, mission and budget. The statutes don’t address background checks on charter applicants. Because of the lack of guidelines, school officials in South Florida say, they do not conduct criminal screenings or examine candidates’ financial or educational pasts.
“That means individuals with a history of failed schools, shaky personal finances or no experience running schools can open or operate charters.”
“The law doesn’t limit who can open a charter school. If they can write a good application … it’s supposed to stand alone,” said Jim Pegg, director of the charter schools department for the Palm Beach County school district. “You’re approving an idea.”
“Charter-school advocates say the complexity of the application, which can run more than 400 pages, weeds out frivolous candidates. But school officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties told the Sun Sentinel some applicants simply cut and paste from previously approved applications available online.”
Charter operators can receive approval and funding before they know where their school will be located. Two iGeneration charters in West Palm Beach opened 11 days after school started.
“As students showed up for class, parts of the building remained under construction. Classrooms had not undergone required fire inspections and sometimes lacked air conditioning, district documents show. The iGeneration charters bused their high schoolers on unauthorized daily field trips because they didn’t have enough seats at the school, records show.
“On one trip, they lost a student. Though she was found four hours later, district officials immediately shut down the schools.
“Because of the quick shut-down, the iGeneration charter schools were overpaid nearly $200,000, according to the Palm Beach County school district. The schools have not returned the money.”
Academic chaos is not unusual:
“A former teacher at the Ivy Academies stored her classroom supplies in the trunk of her car. Every morning, she’d wait for a phone call to find out where classes would be held that day.
“I would never know where we [were] going,” said teacher and former middle school dean Kimberly Kyle-Jones. “It was chaotic.”
“The two Ivy Academies lasted only seven weeks.”
District officials didn’t know where the “nomad campuses” were.
“The biggest tragedy is what happened to those students during the course of time they were in that charter,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said. “When you get a lot of private actors coming into the marketplace, folks are in it to make money … Public education is not a place for you to come to make money.”
Some of the charters don’t know how to run a school or to provide basic supplies. In one, the lights were turned off because the school didn’t pay its elecrtticity bill. Children are the losers.
“Every time a charter school closes, dozens of children are displaced — in some instances, mid-month. Many return to their neighborhood schools where some struggle to catch up because their charters did not provide required testing, instruction in basic subjects or adequate services for those with special needs.
“This isn’t just a regular business. This isn’t a restaurant that you just open up, you serve your food, people don’t like it, you close it and move on,” said Krystal Castellano, a former teacher at the now-closed Next Generation charter school. “This is education; this is students getting left in the middle of the year without a school to go to.”
When charters close, district officials are often unable to collect money that the charter didn’t spend:
“State law requires that furniture, computers and unspent money be returned to the districts, but when officials attempt to collect, charter operators sometimes cannot be found.
“We do know there have been a few [charter schools] … where hundreds of thousands of dollars were never spent on kids, and we don’t know where that money went,” said Pegg, who oversees charters in Palm Beach County. “As soon as we close the door on those schools, those people scatter … We can’t find them.”
“When a Broward school district auditor and school detective went searching for Mitchell at the Ivy Academies in September 2013, he left through a back door, records show. District officials said they have yet to find him, or to collect the $240,000 in public money the schools received for students they never had…..
“When the Miami-Dade school district demanded the return of more than $100,000 it overpaid the Tree of Knowledge Learning Academy in 2009, the year-old charter school ceased operations. The district did not recoup the money.
“It’s almost mind-blowing what’s going on,” said Rosalind Osgood, a Broward School Board member. “They just get away with it.”
Two-thirds of South Flotida’s charters are run by management companies, which further complicates the money trail. These companies collect between 10 and 97% of all revenues.
“They’re public schools in the front door; they’re for-profit closed entities in the back door,” said Kathleen Oropeza, who co-founded FundEducationNow.org, an education advocacy group based in Orlando. “There’s no transparency; the public has no ability to see where the profits are, how the money is spent.”
Given the low bar for opening charter schools in Florida, the number is expected to increase dramatically over the next five years. There are more than 600 charters in the state now. And there will be no more supervision than there is now.
Part 2 of the series tells the story of Steve Gallon, who was banned from working in Néw Jersey because of fiscal improprieties but welcomed as a charter leader in Florida.