Nearly 300,000 students attend charter schools in Florida. Charters are taxpayer funded, privately run and are changing the state’s public education system.
The mission of most charter schools is to improve student performance, prepare them for college and increase graduation rates. Many charters in Florida achieve those goals. But others have blemishes on their records. Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida and WLRN reporter Jessica Bakeman joined The Florida Roundup to discuss.
Bakeman's recent audio documentary for WLRN News, "Chartered: Florida's First Private Takeover Of A Public School System," focuses on the all-charter school district now in Jefferson County. Hear it and read more here.
The Florida Roundup: Integrity Florida recently released a report criticizing the impact of charter schools in the state. You looked at the data and argued that despite the successes we're hearing about, out of Jefferson County and some other places around the state, charters have largely failed in their mission to offer innovations in education.
The report also notes that nearly 400 charters in Florida have closed over the last couple of decades. What research went into this report, and why, in Integrity Florida's view, have charters not succeeded in their mission?
Ben Wilcox: In many cases, I would say charter schools have succeeded in their original mission. And we acknowledge in the report that there are a number of high-performing charter schools in the state, schools that consistently make A grades and fulfill the original intent and purpose of the charter school program when it began, which was to encourage innovation in education and develop best practices that can lead to education reform.
However, our report also found that there are serious serious issues with charter schools in Florida — issues that should be of concern to Florida taxpayers. The report identified what we found to be hidden costs to taxpayers that are that are built into the charter school system: costs that are draining public funds that should be put toward educating educating children in the state of Florida.
TFR: What are those hidden costs that you've identified?
Wilcox: We go back to the high closure rate of charter schools. Nearly 400 charter schools have closed since charter schools began operating in Florida in the late '90s. That's an average of 20 charter school closures a year. Every time a charter school closes, it costs taxpayers money. It's very hard to recover the money that's been allocated to a failing charter school once it closes. And if it closes in the middle of a school year, it puts tremendous strain on the local school districts, which then have to find ways to accommodate the students who are displaced, as well as the teachers who have lost their jobs.
TFR: In terms of what your report found, and the concerns that you raise here in terms of tax dollars and the private nature of charter schools within the public school environment, ... how would you describe the accountability that is in Florida law, as it relates to charter school operators that have to operate these schools under publicly elected school boards?
Wilcox: There is very little accountability actually. And in Florida, we moved away from putting accountability for charter schools with the school districts. Rather they're pretty much only accountable to their nonprofit boards. School districts in Florida have very little ability these days to manage the schools within their districts.
For example, if someone wants to bring a charter school to a district, they make an application to the district. There's very little criteria out there that a school district can [use to] deny an application, but if the school district does deny the application, the charter can then appeal to the state Charter School Appeal Commission. Those applications are routinely granted.
TFR: Certainly state leadership and the Legislature, the governor's office, are squarely on the side of charter-school expansion — and you note that in your study. Another big criticism of charter schools is that tax dollars are often funneled to for-profit companies. About 45 percent of Florida's charter schools are managed by for-profit corporations. The national rate is about 15 percent. So where does Integrity Florida fall on that criticism — that taxpayer money for education is going toward for-profit corporations?
Wilcox: We found the Lion's share of the problems with the charter school industry are with the for-profit charter schools. At worst, the for-profit charter school looks like a taxpayer scam that's more like corporate welfare than it is public education.
Especially among the two big charter school companies in Florida — Charter Schools USA and Academica. What routinely happens ... with those companies, the charter school originally gets set up with a nonprofit board but that board then contracts with one of these big charter school for-profit charter school companies. to manage the school. That charter school company is then paid a fee for managing those schools, typically.
Both of those big charter school companies have development sister corporations. For Charter Schools USA, it's called Red Apple Development. Red Apple Development will come in and renovate a space for the charter school or build the whole facility. And once the school begins operations, then they have to pay rent or lease payments to the sister corporation of the charter school company. So this is all money that is meant to be used to educate our children.
TFR: What is that business relationship in Jefferson County? ... How does it work on the ground in the panhandle?
Jessica Bakeman: So, in Jefferson County, it's a little bit different, given that it is the only public school system that has been taken over by charter schools. The buildings that they're using are school district buildings. It's not as if they're renting from some private landlord in Jefferson County.
Ben obviously started to explain the way these sort of relationships work. So, essentially you have the charter school networks themselves, which are nonprofit. So Somerset is a nonprofit. And there are also several others that are affiliated with Academica, which Ben mentioned. They include the Doral Academy, the Mater Academy and the Pinecrest Academy networks, which you probably recognize if you're in South Florida, because those schools are all over the place. If you look at state records, all of those were founded by the people who founded Academica, which is this for-profit corporation that's based in Miami.
So essentially you have people who are running a for-profit company and then they also founded these charter school networks that then pay the for-profit company to help with administrative tasks in the schools.
People at the charter school network say that Academica is something of a third-party vendor. They don't have much power. They're just a vendor like any school would use a vendor. But the people who founded Academica were a part of founding those networks.
In researching for my documentary, I received hundreds of pages of internal e-mails that were exchanged between the principal and other administrators at Somerset Jefferson and people who work for the Academica company, and it's very clear that people who work for Academica are closely involved in the day-to-day operations of the schools.