The Florida Model in Operation: Cash Cow for a Few, with little Benefit for the School Children. New Mexico kids to Suffer the Same Fate?

     “Charter schools 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.”-Miami Herald (12/10/11)

      Governor Susana Martinez and her Education Secretary Designate Hanna Skandera have been hard at work trying to implement the “Florida Model” of education reform in New Mexico.

     A key component of the Florida model is rapid expansion of charter schools and virtual learning academies.

    Skandera and Martinez have rebranded the Charter School Division at the Public Education Department as “Options for Parents”, which now also covers “virtual schools”. They have appointed lawyer/lobbyist Patty Matthews, formerly the attorney for almost all charter schools in the state and their trade group, to oversee charter school expansion.

    Once primarily authorized by local districts, Skandera has consolidated the authorization process under PED.

    ISPAC has previously covered Hanna Skandera reversing decisions by the Public Education Commission not to renew failing charter schools. ISPAC has also documented how Patty Matthews interceded on behalf of a former client, and referred a charter school in need of legal advice to her law partner, Susan Fox.

    Skandera and Matthews have also brought in K-12, Inc., one of the larger providers of “virtual” learning, after K-12, Inc contributed $5,000 to Susana Martinez.

     Charter schools are publicly funded, but run by private governing boards. The governing boards have much less oversight than traditional public school administrators, including less scrutiny of their finances.

    The Miami Herald, Florida’s largest newspaper, has conducted an extensive investigation into how the “Florida Model” actually functions.  Unlike New Mexico’s largest newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal, which appears to accept anything out of the Martinez and Skandera Administration with little to no investigation at all.

     And what those Florida reporters found should be enough to cause every New Mexican to say NO WAY! to the Skandera and Martinez education reform agenda.

    In a series of articles, Miami Herald reporters Scott Hiaasen and Kathleen McGregory exposed the  for-profit motive behind Florida’s unrestrained expansion of charter schools and virtual schools.

     According to the article, Florida Charter Schools: Big Money, Little Oversight, 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.” Regardless of  the large amount of tax dollars flowing to charter schools, “they continue to operate with little public oversight. Even when charter schools have been caught violating state laws, school districts have few tools to demand compliance.

     According to another article in the series, Academica Cultivates Links to Lawmakers, Florida’s largest for-profit charter school operator and its  owners have contributed $225,000 in campaign contributions to state legislators, hired legislators as lobbyists, and as “consultants” including one Republican lawmaker who was paid $5,000 per month to monitor “quality control” at Academica.

      In October 2011, Hanna Skandera and Fernando Zulueta, the president of Academica, served as panelists at FEEs (“Foundation for Excellence in Education”) annual conference promoting  the Florida Mode.

     A brief summary of what the Miami Herald investigation uncovered:

  • The Florida Board of Education has overturned local school boards who decided against the renewal of problem schools 30 times since 2003. So much for local control.
  • In many instances, the education mission of the school clashes with the profit-making mission of the management company. This results in deliberate shortages of education materials and supplies  in order to pay high managerial fees, which often exceeds one million dollars ($1,000,000) a school year.
  • Many management companies also control the land and buildings used by the schools- sometimes collecting more than 25 percent of a schools’ revenue in lease payments, in addition to management fees.
  • Florida’s largest charter school operator, Academica, collects almost $19 million a year in lease payments. Academica controls over $115 million dollars in South Florida real estate, which is exempt from taxes.
  • Charter schools often rely on loans from management companies or other insiders to stay afloat. Not only are they paying high fees, but high interest rates, too.
  • Florida’s charter school laws- considered among the nation’s most charter school friendly-are aimed more at promoting the schools than policing them, leaving school districts with few ways to enforce the rules, such as meeting academic standards.
  • Schools have also been accused of using illegal tactics to bring in more money-charging students illegal fees for standard classes, or falsifying attendance records to earn more tax dollars.
  • Local school districts are limited by the Florida Education Department and the Florida legislature in  their ability to monitor and take action against problem charter schools.
  • Professional charter school management companies, along with landlords and developers, control the lion’s share of charter schools’ money.
  • Since 1996, one in four Florida charter schools has shut down- more than double the national average- primarily due to financial reasons.
  • There is no clearcut policy on conflict of interests between charter schools or their governor boards allowing some board members to get paid for services provided to the school.

      The Florida media has made it quite clear that the hype surrounding the Florida Model masks a significant list of problems. And what do the taxpayers have to show for their massive investment in the Florida Model? Not much. According to the Miami Herald, charter school students on average “perform about the same as their counterparts in traditional public schools on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Tests.”

      Is this education reform or scam reform? No one should profit this much off of public education tax dollars

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