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Posted at 07:00 AM ET, 10/14/2011

A cautionary charter school tale

Some public charter schools do wonderful work. Some don’t. This is what can happen when officials who allow charter schools to open don’t pay enough attention to what happens after the doors open to students.

In a trendy area of Dade County called Coconut Grove, controversy is swirling around the Academy of Arts & Minds and how one man dominates the school’s operations.

The Miami Herald has discovered a number of questionable management practices, including one that violates the rule that public charter schools are supposed to be free to students. The school’s founder, Manny Alonso-Poch, has denied he is doing anything wrong, and says the school is academically successful. That hasn’t stopped some parents from complaining about his influence and conflicts of interest.

The academy, the Herald reported, charged fees for basic classes, a violation of state law, and was in fact taken to task by Miami-Dade school officials. The school's governing board met the day after the school was admonished and when a parent tried to raise the issue, two board members lef the room.

Alonso-Poch, a real estate lawyer, has taken for himself other key roles in the school, which started eight years ago and received $2.4 million of taxpayer money for the 2009-10 school year.

He set up the management company that runs the school on a $90,000 no-bid annual contract, and he owns the property on which Arts & Minds is located, meaning that the school pays rent to one of his companies. The Herald said that records show that the school pays more than $77,000 a month in rent, and the property on which the school is located is not taxed.

The Herald also reported that one of the members of board of the school lives in Lima, Peru, and has for the last six years. Another member is Alonso-Poch’s cousin.

There’s more: Another company owned by the school founder provides lunches to students and the school pays, $147,000 in 2009 and 2010, though Alonso-Poch said he doesn’t profit from this.

“If there are areas where profits are made, I don’t see what’s wrong with that,” he was quoted as saying.

Actually, there’s plenty wrong with people making big profits on public education, with public money. The country’s public education system is the nation’s proudest civic institution, and running it like a business, where profits are king, is the wrong model.

There has been a rush by school reformers, including the Obama administration, to expand charter schools, making them one of the pillars of the reform agenda. In fiscal year 2011, the administration awarded some $255 million to help charter schools open and expand through several grant programs administered by the Charter Schools Program.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said repeatedly that bad charters should be closed, but these sentiments are frankly lost in the push to open new ones, and too many charters are not given adequate oversight by their chartering agencies.

The first piece of legislation aimed at rewriting the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as No Child Left Behind, is a bill designed to increase the number of charter schools and change the way they are authorized. It was approved by the House in September.

The largest study on charter schools showed that most of them produced the same or worse test scores than traditional public schools. But even if every charter school were wonderful, it remains true that they can never replace the public neighborhood public schools that educate the vast majority of American children.

The notion once advanced by supporters that charters would drive improvement in traditional public schools has not been borne out. And many of the “best practices” that charter schools are hailed for implementing — longer school days, for example — were not really original to charters.

I’ve visited some terrific charter schools and am glad they are there to help educate needy children. But the attention these schools receive outweighs their real place in public education.


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