Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Failed charter schools can always come back for more

Two weeks ago, the kids who attend Acclaim Academy in Jacksonville discovered that their charter school no longer existed.

The Florida Times-Union described how classes had come to an abrupt and unexpected end, no matter that the 250 students were in the midst of end-of-school year testing. The children came to class to discover school employees were packing up supplies. The school website was down. There were no buses to transport pupils home that afternoon.

Another ignoble experiment in Florida’s barely regulated charter school education had gone kaput, leaving 250 students in the lurch. Apparently the charter operator didn’t have enough money budgeted to finish out the school year. To hell with the kids.

One day later, the same operator shut down another Acclaim Academy, this one housed in a former Target store outside Orlando, leaving 181 kids on the outs with just three weeks left in the school year.

Local school districts were left to clean up the mess, although state law allows public school systems little oversight over who could open a charter school in their districts. They could only watch as Acclaim Academies frittered away public dollars, then find room at a public school where the children could finish out their school year.

Florida law, meanwhile, does nothing to preclude this same dodgy outfit from opening up another charter. Charter operators need not bother proving their financial viability. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been associated with failed ventures. Or even whether they have education credentials. The law doesn’t require criminal background checks for the charter applicants. Charter schools aren’t required to produce a certificate of occupancy until just 15 days before the beginning of the school year, precluding proper inspections before school doors open.

After more than a year of legal wrangling with the Broward County School District over financial and academic failings, the Obama Academy for Boys and its sister school, the Red Shoe Charter School for Girls, finally agreed to voluntarily terminate their charter contracts. The Sun Sentinel reported that the schools failed to make the required accommodations for special needs students; to provide reading programs for low-performing students; or offer financial records. Last October, the school district reported that the two charter schools had not accounted for $876,000 in public money.

Both schools were run by Corey Alston, the former city manager of South Bay in Palm Beach County, who just happened to plead guilty to grand theft last year for running up personal charges on his city-issued credit card (Alton received six years probation). His criminal record has no bearing on whether he can run a charter school operation. Not in Florida.

In 2011, the Miami Herald reported how for-profit charter school management companies and their landlords — often controlled by the same entities — were scarfing up hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money with scant oversight. Some operated more like real estate holding companies than educational enterprises. The revelations were scandalous. Yet, nothing was done.

Last fall, the Naples Daily News looked at the alarming number of charter school failures in Florida. The Daily News found that since 2008, 119 charter schools had closed statewide (including 20 in Miami-Dade; 24 in Broward; and eight in Palm Beach County), mostly because of financial mismanagement, others for academic failures or various administrative screw-ups. The closings often came in the middle of the academic year, forcing the public school districts to find desks for 14,000 displaced students. Unhappily, the charters had already devoured the state money earmarked for each student.

Most charters manage to operate in the black. Most charter schools measure well against the state academic standards. But a state law meant to nurture innovation and create academic programs unfettered by bureaucratic rules also allows rank profiteers and the utterly inept to flourish.

Last week, the Sun Sentinel reported that a state audit was holding Palm Beach County Schools accountable for $2.5 million in funds because a defunct Boynton Beach charter school had not produced acceptable attendance records for 736 students who attended the charter.

But when school districts attempt to crackdown on irresponsible operators, they face resistance in Tallahassee. Last month, the state Board of Education overruled the Palm Beach County School District, which had denied a charter school chain’s application to open yet another school in the county. School Board Vice Chairman Frank Barbieri told the Palm Beach Post that the charter school chain was running operations that “do not meet [charter schools’] intent and purpose, but are operated solely as a profit-making enterprise using taxpayer dollars.”

Barbieri added: “Perhaps they should call them McCharter Schools since they want to build them on every corner.”

The lack of accountability among charter operations has been obvious for years. The Herald stories in 2011 should have been a catalyst for reform. Similar investigations by the Naples Daily News and the Sun Sentinel not only found the same recurring problems, but also some of the same dodgy operators — the bottom feeders of the charter school industry — coming back for more taxpayer money, never mind their past failures.

But the only change to the state charter school law considered by the Florida Legislature this year, before the session sputtered to a premature stop, was a bill that would force school districts to share construction money with charters.

An amendment that would have required background checks for applicants and proof that they were financially viable failed. Because we must spare these so-called innovators from such stifling oversight.