Private charter schools are funded by taxpayers, yet Florida law does not require their operators and key staff to undergo background checks — financial or criminal. And unlike traditional public schools, charters are paid to serve special-needs students, yet are not required to actually offer the services. And as the Sun Sentinel discovered this summer, many don’t bother.
Now our reporters have found that failed charter school operators are being allowed to open new schools, under new names, despite past financial or other problems that led to previous charter closings.
No less than seven groups of applicants with ties to failed or floundering charter schools are seeking second chances and public money to open 18 more.
As reporters Karen Yi and Amy Shipley found, most will likely win approval. That’s because school districts say they are restricted from turning away applicants based solely on past problems running charter schools. State laws allows district officials to evaluate what’s on the application, such as academic plans, budget proposals and student services. But the application doesn’t ask questions about previous school collapses or controversial professional histories.
Take a quick look at the type of folks being allowed another shot at public cash:
•A group that opened three new charter schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties this year — and shut them 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, state and local records show. A state investigation later chastised school directors for next-to-nothing oversight.
•An educator who was banned from New Jersey public schools, then consulted for two schools in Broward and Palm Beach counties that shut down last year. The Palm Beach County
school district closed one of the schools because of poor academics and financial difficulties; the Broward school failed due to dwindling enrollment.
The list goes on.
But according to Florida state leaders, none of that matters. Because of the political muscle of this growing industry, lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott play hands off with these private, but publicly funded schools.
Keep in mind, the charter school business is booming. Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties have received 90 applications to open charter schools in 2015-16. That’s not counting the 620 already operating statewide, double the number around in the last decade.
Given what’s at stake, why are they not held accountable?
After all, when a charter school fails, its students start to fall behind. Parents lose, too, as they scramble to find their child a good school with an open seat.
For these reasons and more, we call on Gov. Scott to stand up for the children in failing charter schools. More attention is needed to ensure their educational gains — not to mention taxpayer dollars — are protected.
Yes, there are plenty of good charter schools. Many serve the needs of parents who want something better than low-performing public schools in their neighborhoods.
Still, charter schools shouldn’t face lesser accountability standards.
Florida needs more oversight of charter schools. Operators should be forced to report sooner than later when they can no longer pay to turn on the lights or keep students enrolled. They should be required to provide a permanent address months in advance of opening, not weeks, like today. And the law should be changed to allow local officials to look beyond the black-and-white print on an application and take past failures into consideration.
The failures in the state’s charter school law cannot stand.