Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Florida charters and the not-so-hidden costs of creative distruction

We've been spending a lot of time on the shady characters who were uncovered by what had damned well better be an award winning series by the Sun Sentinel. We haven't spent enough on the damage they do.

As we've discussed before, the underlying assumption behind Florida's approach to charter schools is that the combination of lots of ideas, minimal regulation and unchecked creative destruction will produce transformative innovation. [All quotes from the Sun Sentinel story by Karen Yi and Amy Shipley]
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.
There are a number of issues with this approach. There's the problem of adverse selection -- the lack of a background check makes the process more attractive to people who couldn't pass a background check and those people tend to crowd out better applicants. There's the misalignment of incentives --  even a failed school can produce a decent pay-off. And there's the high cost of failure borne almost entirely by taxpayers, teachers, parents and children.
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.”

Next Generation, an elementary school in Lauderdale Lakes, sometimes had no toilet paper, soap or paper towels in the student bathrooms during the 2012-13 school year, teachers said. Students sometimes ate hours after their designated lunchtimes, often from fast-food restaurants. A parent complained of a revolving door of teachers.

“Things were horrible,” said Cynthia Hazlewood, who helped build the school’s curriculum and has worked at other charter schools. “One day FPL came in and shut the lights off.”

The school shuttered weeks before the last day of school.
To be hammer blunt here, this reveals a hugely hypocritical contradiction that runs through the reform movement. The justification for eliminating even the most basic job protections for teacher is that keeping an incompetent teacher harms a student. There are real questions about whether eliminating tenure improves overall teacher quality, but putting those aside, the damage done by having a bottom-of-the-pool teacher is a fraction of that done by this kind of creative destruction. From the lost instruction time to the emotional and social toll of having their lives disrupted to the disillusionment of learning the truth about that wonderful new school, this is a horrible price for kids to pay. No doubt, it was made worse by by the Florida state government's incompetence and endemic corruption in the education sector, but a large part of this suffering is intrinsic to the try-fail-try approach. Even when it works as intended, some kids have to pay a high price so that the system can be healthy.

Of course, the Florida system didn't work as intended; it was a train wreck and here are a few of the casualties.
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.

The company that founded the iGeneration charter schools, InterVisual Education, blamed the schools’ demise on the management company it hired to operate the schools months before they closed.

“What was supposed to get done, never got done,” said Stephanie Velez, manager of operations for InterVisual Technology, the parent company of InterVisual Education. “There was nothing we could do at that point.”

InterVisual founded and managed another school in Immokalee. That school also was shut down by the Collier County school district last December. District officials cited the school for employing uncertified teachers and failing to submit required financial reports, documents show.

InterVisual will open another school this fall in Davie, but company officials have no plans to manage it.

“We’ve had our taste, and we didn’t like it,” Velez said.
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.

The schools, managed by Trayvon Mitchell of Oakland Park, opened in 2013 at the Signature Grand reception hall in Davie.

Evicted over a bounced check, the schools relocated to a Fort Lauderdale church that did not have enough classrooms.

That’s when the daily field trips began.

On some days, students went to the Miami Seaquarium or local museums. Other days were spent at Holiday Park in Fort Lauderdale.

The schools then moved to a second church a few miles away.
A handful of South Florida charter schools that failed in the past five years owe a total of at least $1 million in public education money to local school districts, records show. The actual amount may be much higher. Districts struggle to track spending at troubled schools.

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.

1 comment:

  1. The notion that you can give away money with minimal regulation and not just get scammed into oblivion is insane.

    IMO, many of the ideas of the education reform movement make sense and deserve a try: but they need to be tried under appropriate adult supervision.