In 2011, the Miami Herald ran a special report called “Cashing In On Kids — Florida’s Charter Schools: big money, little oversight” that reviewed the state’s 15-year charter expansion and found that after spending billions in public funds to support these schools, the educational reform had “turned into one of the region’s fastest-growing industries, backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians” with little oversight. It said in part:
Charter schools have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords — one and the same, in many cases — and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest.
In many instances, the educational mission of the school clashes with the profit-making mission of the management company, a Miami Herald examination of South Florida’s charter school industry has found. Consider:
• Some schools have ceded almost total control of their staff and finances to for-profit management companies that decide how the schools’ money is spent …
• Many management companies also control the land and buildings used by the schools — sometimes collecting more than 25 percent of a school’s revenue in lease payments, in addition to management fees …
• Charter schools often rely on loans from management companies or other insiders to stay afloat, making charter school governing boards beholden to the managers they oversee …
The story made the point of noting that Florida’s charter school laws “are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules.”
Fast forward to 2015. Has anything changed? Not much, according to a new exposé on Florida charter schools, this one done by the Sun-Sentinel, with the headline: “Forida’s Charter Schools UNSUPERVISED — Taxpayers, students lose when school operators exploit weak laws.”
It says that in the past five years, 56 charter schools in South Florida have closed because of mismanagement and/or other issues, and that “a handful” of them “owe a total of at least $1 million in public education money to local school districts” but because districts have a hard time documenting spending, the amount could be much higher. The story says:
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.
Charter advocates in Florida, including former governor Jeb Bush, who pioneered school choice when he led the state from 1999 to 2007, don’t much like to talk about these problems. In fact, they hold up Florida’s charter sector — with more than 600 charter schools — as a national model.
You won’t hear Bush bringing it up at stops for his campaign to win the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. In a speech titled “My Passion for Education Reform,” published Sept. 1 on his Web site, he talks about charter schools without even a vague hint of any problems with them, including the one he co-founded in 1996. It was the first charter school in Florida.
In fact, a story this year about the school in the Tampa Bay Times said:
The school’s finances led to its 2008 closure by the Miami-Dade School Board.
Bush had left office by then, and was out of touch with school officials.
“I am not aware of what this is about,” he wrote in an email to the Miami Herald when asked about the school’s closure in 2008. “I do know that the school was an A school, which warmed my heart.”
Yet in his “My Passion for Education Reform,” Bush, who lost his first bid for the Florida governorship in 1994 but won in the 1998 election, said:
I worked with the President of the Urban League in Miami, T. Willard Fair, and in 1996, we started our own charter school for the Liberty City neighborhood. At the time there were no charters in Florida. So we said, let’s change the law, let’s go build a charter school, let’s start something new and hopeful for people who shouldn’t have to wait for a real opportunity.
Our charter school endeavor was an all-volunteer effort. The weekend before Liberty City Charter opened, we realized the school didn’t have a flagpole. So I went to the hardware store, and a few of us learned how to mix the concrete and anchor the pole. That Monday morning, 90 kids raised the American flag together. That moment symbolized so much of what we were trying to do – give every kid a chance to be part of American opportunity. It was an experience that still ignites my passion for transforming education today.
In my next campaign, I visited 250 schools across Florida, many of them in low-income communities. After I won the governorship in 1998, we made education reform a chief priority. We built a plan based on strong accountability, high standards, quality testing, quality teachers and unprecedented parental choice. We tripled the number of charter schools. We created the nation’s first statewide voucher program and then created three more broad choice programs, in addition to expanding virtual learning.
There’s nothing more about charters from Bush in his “passion” piece. Nothing about the financial scandals or closures. Nothing about the state’s weak oversight laws, which were first passed during his governorship. Many of Florida’s charter schools are not exactly offering “every child an opportunity to get the education they deserve,” but don’t expect him to talk much about it publicly. If at all.