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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Florida exposes massive charter school scam

Want to get rich quick? Hurry on down to Florida and open a charter school. You don’t need any experience in education, it doesn’t matter if you failed in the past, just come up with a good idea!

The Sun-Sentinel in Florida published a powerful indictment of the unsupervised charter industry.

In the past five years, 56 South Florida charter schools have closed, expelling thousands of students. Five charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties didn’t survive three months.

Jeb Bush boasts at every opportunity about his “reform” policies of privatization in Florida.

Read this article and see what you think about Jeb’s “miracle.”

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.

South Florida is home to more than 260 charter schools, many of them high-performing. Some cater to students with interests in the performing arts, science and technology, or those with special needs.

Like traditional public schools, charter schools are funded with tax money. But these independent public schools can be opened and operated by individuals, companies or cities, and they are controlled by volunteer governing boards, not local elected school boards.

It gets worse every year, since the state’s weak law allows almost anyone to open a charter school, without regard to their qualifications.

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.”

Of course, letting anyone open a charter creates a certain level of instability and lots of closures. But that seems to be the way Florida’s leaders like it:

Fifteen charter schools in Broward have closed in the last two years. That number doubled the county’s total closures since charter schools first opened in Florida 18 years ago. Seven charter schools have closed in Palm Beach County in the last two years. That’s more than a quarter of the district’s historic total.

Eight of those failed schools lasted about a year or less. Five didn’t survive three months.

“These are our tax dollars,” said state Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth. “And to let them be used for a school that is only going to survive for one or two years is a huge waste of resources.”

Another 29 charter schools are expected to open in South Florida this fall…..

Charter schools, which receive public money in monthly installments based on student enrollment, can be overpaid if they overestimate their expected attendance or shut down abruptly.

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.

The Broward State Attorney’s Office is also investigating Mitchell and his involvement with the Ivy Academies.

The Palm Beach County school district never got back the $113,000 it overpaid La Mensa Academy in Palm Beach Gardens, which closed after a year. La Mensa projected it would have far more students than the five who showed up on the first day of school in 2011.

My Choice Academy has not returned $56,000 to the Palm Beach County school district but is seeking to reopen in the fall. It closed in January 2013 after four months in Riviera Beach because of problems with its lease. The school’s founder, Altermease Kendrick, said the start-up challenges were overwhelming.

Charter fraud is rampant. Ah, the perils of privatization. Maybe one of the news anchors will see this story and ask Jeb a question or two after he boasts about what he has done to education in Florida.