BILL BERKOWITZ FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT
As is often the case with huge economic and social experiments that severely rip apart the fabric of the nation's social safety net while benefitting huge corporations, management companies, public relations flacks, and providing a perpetual glint in the eyes of right-wing foundation heads and the data manipulators at conservative think tanks, there is rarely oversight, scrutiny or accountability attached to these projects.
Huge companies found pots of taxpayer dollars after the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act of 1996 (Welfare Reform/privatization) was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. President Bush's faith-based initiative, based on the assumption that the private sector and religious charities could replace many government programs, wound up providing seed money for a number right-wing religious organizations.
These days, it is the burgeoning charter school industry that is reeling in taxpayer dollars. As two Miami Herald reporters discovered, the charter school industry in Florida, which has been given the political stamp of approval of a thoroughly conservative state legislature and a series of conservative governors, allows charters to "play by their own rules."
According to an investigative report by The Miami Herald's Scott Hiaasen and Kathleen McGrory, the managers of charter schools in Florida, a project championed by former Governor Jeb Bush, are running amuck.
As billions in taxpayer dollars have been shifted from traditional school districts to independently run charter schools, the charter school industry has become "one of the region's fastest-growing industries, backed by real-estate developers and promoted by politicians."
gHiasson and McGrory report that "while charter schools have grown into a $400-million-a-year business in South Florida, receiving about $6,000 in taxpayer dollars for every student enrolled, they continue to operate with little public oversight." In fact, "Even when charter schools have been caught violating state laws, school districts have few tools to demand compliance."
The charter school industry in Florida -- and one suspects in other states as well - "have become a parallel school system unto themselves, a system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords-one and the same, in many cases-and rife with insider deals and potential conflicts of interest."
The Miami Herald's report on South Florida's charter school industry found: for-profit management companies have almost total control over how the schools' money will be allocated; because many of the school sites and building are controlled by the same management companies that run the schools themselves, revenues in addition to management fees are being collected by these companies; "Charter schools often rely on loans from management companies or other insiders to stay afloat, making charter school governing boards beholden to the managers they oversee"; some building where students are being taught are uninhabitable, textbooks are lacking in some schools, and, attendance records are being faked to "earn tax dollars," while students are being charged "illegal fees for standard classes."
As has been documented in reports about charter schools in other parts of the country, the management of some of Florida's charter schools accept "a disproportionately lower share of black, poor and disabled children." In addition many schools are "deliberately" seeking "high-performing students - contrary to the schools' contracts," in order to inflate its cumulative statistics.
Although in some cases laws are being violated, school districts are hamstrung by Florida's charter school laws, "considered among the nation's most charter school friendly." These laws are "aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules."
Hiasson and McGrory reported that "When school districts have taken a hard line with charter schools, they have found their decisions second-guessed by state education officials in Tallahassee. And as the number of charter schools has climbed-almost 200 now operate in Miami-Dade and Broward counties alone-state lawmakers have chipped away at local school districts' ability to monitor them."
Designed to give parents more choice in a state-wide school system that was over-extended, "charter schools first took hold" in the state in 1996. "Competition from charter schools was expected to force public schools to adapt and improve," Hiasson and McGrory pointed out. Some of the 519 charter schools in Florida have succeeded in that goal, ranking high in academic performance.
But charter schools have also resulted in a "freewheeling system" with minimal oversight that "has given rise to a cottage industry of professional charter school management companies that-along with the landlords and developers who own and build schools-control the lion's share of charter schools' money."
These management companies are reeling in taxpayer dollars in several ways: they receive "roughly $6,000 per student from the state" and they "also get some state funds for facilities and maintenance." In fact, "Most schools rent their facilities-in churches, shopping centers, or brand-new school buildings erected by real-estate developers," and these properties are "exempt from property taxes."
According to Hiasson and McGrory, "Many of the highest rents are charged by landlords with ties to the management companies running the schools, [and] .... At least 56 charter schools in Miami-Dade and Broward counties sit on land whose owners are tied to management companies, property records show."
The Miami Herald reporters maintained that "As statewide budget cuts have hit the bottom line at all public schools, some charters have been accused of cutting costs and boosting revenue at the expense of children and parents." One student's charter school claimed that her parents had not completed their 120 hours of volunteer service and they said she would not graduate unless she paid a $600 fee ($5 per volunteer hour). Students at another charter school were charged "student fees for basic classes like math and reading-a violation of state law."
While there are arguments to be had over the efficacy of charter schools, there is no disputing the facts presented by The Miami Herald's reporters that, in part due to a lack of oversight and accountability, Florida's charter schools have become a veritable gold mine for a number of corporations.