Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida allows inept operators and profiteers to run charter school

The semester began in Broward last week with another charter school closing, with 138 more kids on the outs, scrambling to find themselves a new school.

And that was hardly news in a state that offers such puny oversight of the charter school system. The suddenly defunct iGeneration Empowerment Academy of Margate was the 55th charter school in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach to fail since 2011, according to the Sun Sentinel. StateImpact Florida reported that going back to 1998, a third of all charter schools in Florida have gone kaput.

Of course, most of the state’s 650 charters are managing to operate in the black. Most measure well against the state academic standards. But a school reform that is supposed to foster teaching innovations unfettered by bureaucratic strictures also allows inept operators and rank profiteers to open charter schools in Florida.

In 2013, the Palm Beach Post reported that another iGeneration Empowerment Academy, this one in West Palm Beach, had been shut down by the county school board after the school had been evicted from one location, failed to meet building code requirements at another, then seemed to have misplaced a student for several hours. When the school closed, it took $192,000 in public money with it.

That’s the other problem. Failed charter schools not only leave students in the lurch and teachers out of jobs — Florida taxpayers are stuck with enormous financial losses.

Last month, the Associated Press reported that since 2000, about $70 million in state money earmarked for construction and building improvements had disappeared with failed charter schools. Nineteen charter schools in Miami-Dade County closed after taking in $7.9 million. In Palm Beach County, $9 million in building expenditures went down the tubes with 21 charter schools. Broward’s 19 defunct charter schools lost $16.5 million.

Out of that lost $70 million, the state Department of Education clawed back a measly $133,000. Those supposed capital improvements now belonged to someone else.

Back in 2011, the Miami Herald reported how for-profit charter school management companies and their landlords — often 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 AP revelations last month only brought the Herald’s 2011 finding into sharper focus.

It’s not just Florida. A national study released last month by the National Education Policy Center warned that loose regulation of charter schools across the country was fostering “privatization and profiteering.” The study found that some charter operations were colluding with for-profit corporations to finance real estate deals with taxpayer money. The study found charter schools then paid rent to their corporate partner and — just like in Miami-Dade — often both entities were controlled by the same people.

Kin Griffith, both a business manager and an investor at the iGeneration Empowerment Academy of Margate, insisted that in this case he was the big loser, not the taxpayers. Griffith said, “I’ll be paying for this the rest of my life.”