Karen Yi and Amy Shipley of the Sun Sentinel have a follow-up to their remarkable series on mismanagement in Florida charter schools.
At least seven groups of applicants with ties to failed or floundering charter schools are seeking second chances and public money to open 18 more.Most of this is familiar territory for our regulars, but there is one aspect that I haven't discussed as much as I should. The education reform movement has gone to great lengths to play up its grassroots aspects but the significant components have always been top-down and technocratic. You often see this kind of local push back, particularly when the proposals coming from the state capital are as bad as this.
Odds are, most will prevail.
School districts say that they can't deny applicants solely because of past problems running charter schools. State laws tell them to evaluate what they see on paper — academic plans, budget proposals, student services — not previous school collapses or controversial professional histories.
District officials are currently reviewing applications for next year.
Among those vying to open new charter schools, which are privately operated but publicly funded:
• A group that managed three new charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that opened this year — and then shut down on the first day of school.
• The founder of two charter schools that failed in 2007 amid accusations of stolen money, shoddy record keeping and parent complaints, according to state and local records. A state investigation later chastised school directors for "virtually nonexistent" oversight, though prosecutors filed no criminal charges.
• An educator who was banned from New Jersey public schools, then consulted for two schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that shuttered in 2013. The Palm Beach County school district closed one of the schools because of poor academics and financial difficulties; the Broward school chose to cease operations amid dwindling enrollment, according to school district reports.
The Sun Sentinel also found three applications from leaders at two charter schools that were ordered to close this year for poor academics. Another three proposals came from a director at an existing charter school chided for its deteriorating financial condition. An entrepreneur who has consulted for a handful of failed schools is also listed on an application.
"We're asking ourselves, 'How do we follow the law, yet make professional decisions in the best interests of students?'" said Jim Pegg, director of the charter school department for the Palm Beach County School district.
A Sun Sentinel investigation in June found state law allows virtually anyone who can fill out a lengthy application to open a charter school. If school districts veer too far outside the guidelines to reject applications, they risk having their decisions overturned by the state.
Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie said he might be willing to take that risk given the range of applicants.
"If we have to, we'll deny some applications and bring them to the state and still fight," Runcie said. "We can't continue to go with the bad actors that are out there and have them to continue to operate."
Here's one of the cases where a district tried to challenge one of these decisions. Note the result.
Eight hours before students were to report for classes at the new Broward County Charter High on the first day of school this year, Richard E. Durr emailed a Broward school district official saying the school would not open "due to circumstances beyond our control." Durr is a director at the school's management company, American Charter Schools, Inc.As we've discussed before, these school closings can be extraordinarily tough on kids. This was a horrible way for the kids who had enrolled in these schools to start the year. It was perhaps even tougher on parents who had spent the weeks before getting their children excited about their new schools only to have to explain to them at the last minute that those schools simply aren't there anymore.
By day's end, two more schools managed by that same company had shut down. One school in Riviera Beach failed to attract students; the other in Delray Beach enrolled only a few, a district official said. The applications for the two Palm Beach County schools were rejected by the school district in 2012, but those decisions were reversed by the state.
Yet Durr's company, American Charter Schools, Inc., is listed as the education service provider on applications for four proposed charter schools in Palm Beach County. An education service provider is often referred to as a school's management company.
It is even worse when a school closes midyear. Unfortunately, Florida has seen plenty of that as well.
With the costs of failure largely ignored by the powers that be, it's easy to see how those trying to get into the charter school business can have such a nonchalant attitude.
"We are supposed to learn from our experiences," said [Ann-Marie] Manzano, who is applying for two new charter schools. She said that if applicants "haven't done anything intentional and if they have been a victim" they should be given another shot at opening a school.Manzano has an interesting history -- the key phrase is arguably "declined to prosecute" -- but even if we assume the best of intentions, she was still not good at her job and the victims of her failures were the kids and families that trusted her.