Wednesday, September 3, 2014

The essential distinction between charter schools and charter school chains

Noah Pransky of TV station WTSP adds to the excellent coverage of Florida's charter school corruption scandal. The piece is well worth checking out. It is also a good place to emphasize a point I've made in passing before. The charter school sector is highly diverse. It ranges from literal mom and pop operations to nation-wide corporations. The best of these schools get good results, genuinely care about their students and can fill an important educational niche. The worst aggressively cook data to conceal mediocre results and gouge the taxpayers.

If current trends hold, I think charter schools will be nearly as diverse and I'm not optimistic about who the winners will be.
Charter Schools USA (CUSA) has been operating charter schools in Florida for 20 years, including recently-opened schools in Hillsborough County: Woodmont Charter, Winthrop Charter, and Henderson Hammock Charter. Although charter schools sometimes struggle financially at first, CUSA eventually collects a 5% management fee from each to provide administration and guidance.

But 10 Investigates found a much bigger pot of money CUSA has been able to tap into: rent. When the company helps open a new school, its development arm, Red Apple Development, acquires land and constructs a school. Then, CUSA charges the school high rent.

For example, Winthrop Charter in Riverview may struggle to balance its budget this year thanks to a $2 million rent payment to CUSA/Red Apple Development. The payment will equate to approximately 23% of its budget, even though CUSA CEO Jon Hage has been quoted as saying charter school rent should not exceed 20%.


Jurado adds that many new charter schools ultimately fail because they lack the stability or resources that Charter Schools USA provides. The company operates 70 schools in seven states.

But among CUSA's critics is the League of Women Voters, which recently released a study suggesting a troubling lack of separation between a charter school's advisory board and for-profit management companies. It also indicates charter school teachers aren't often paid as well and profits all-too-often play a role in educational decisions.

"That means that children aren't getting what they're owed by the public funding," said Pat Hall, a retired Jefferson High department head and Hillsborough County's education chair for the League of Women Voters.

The study also revealed school choice creates a higher risk of disruption to a child's education, as "statewide closure rate of charters is 20%" and "Charters are 50% of all F-rated schools in 2011." In the last week, last-minute problems displaced a hundreds of charter school students from St. Petersburg to Delray Beach.

Hall acknowledges many charter schools are teaching children in unique and successful ways, but says Charter Schools USA isn't offering students anything that's not available in public schools. She adds that the schools are so focused on FCAT fundamentals, they forego many traditional aspects of the school experience.

While many CUSA schools may not have amenities such as a library or cafeteria, a company spokesperson said moving those amenities to the classroom can improve a student's learning atmosphere.



Charter Schools USA, its executives, and its subsidiaries have also spent millions of dollars to influence how laws are written in Florida.

State records reveal CUSA has donated $468,850 to candidates and committees at the state level since 2010. Most went to the Republican Party of Florida and other candidates/committees who support school choice.

CUSA CEO Jonathan Hage donated $50,000 to Gov. Rick Scott's "Let's Get to Work" committee in 2013, as well as thousands of dollars to other Republican candidates and committees. That includes four donations to various Charlie Crist campaigns between 2000 and 2006.

Other executives, Red Apple Development, and affiliated board members have thousands more.

State records indicate CUSA has also increased its lobbying expenditures every year since 2010, nearing $2 million in Tallahassee lobbying alone.

Executive lobbying expenditures, by year (only ranges provided):

2010 – Between 60,009 and 189,987
2011 – Between 100,007 and 209,989
2012 – Between 120,004 and 219,990
2013 – Between 230,004 and 379,985
2014 (first quarter) - Between 80,000 and 109,997
TOTALS: Between 590,000 and $1.1 million
Legislative lobbying expenditures, by year (state estimates):

2010 – $165,000
2011 – $265,000
2012 – $270,000
2013 – $320,000
2014 (first quarter) - $95,000
TOTALS: Between 590,000 and $1.1 million
The League of Women Voters also identified numerous legislators with connections to Charter Schools (Read Page 13), but none associated with Charter Schools USA, although state Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa, sits on the volunteer Bay Area Charter Foundation board.

Asked about spending money on politics instead of in the classroom, Jurado pointed to the hordes of happy parents and thousands on CUSA waiting lists in Hillsborough County.

"I don't think the parents are going to look at this as, 'that's too much money to spend,' when they see the results from the child," Jurado said.

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