Tuesday, July 22, 2014

More on Florida and the looting phase of education reform

This basically picks up where the post, "We couldn't even afford one Mercedes Benz at Next Generation," left off and continues detailing the Harold Hill aspect of Florida's charter school scandals.

One of the fundamental assumptions of the charter school movement is that choice and accountability make regulation superfluous.  Michigan bet heavily on that principle. Florida even more so. In the Sunshine State, there are almost no barriers to entry, The attitude has been "let everybody in and let the market decide who gets to stay." Unfortunately, the market only getss to make that decision after some very large checks have gone out.

From the previous mentioned and absolutely essential Sun-Sentinel series:
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. [That would be our old friend from the earlier post -- MP]

• 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.
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.
Not surprisingly, this system has attracted some interesting characters such as Trayvon Mitchell.
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.

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.

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