What taxpayers may not know about Florida’s charter schools

Florida’s booming charter movement – one of the largest in the country and now more than 20 years old — has increasingly moved away from independent, nonprofit “mom and pop” charter schools and nonprofit chains.

Today, nearly half of the charters are run by for-profit private companies, “which earn profits from tax money in a variety of ways,” according to a wide-ranging analysis of the charter movement by Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan research institute and government watchdog.

To be certain, charter school groups and families have praised efforts to give choice to students who are stuck in zoned neighborhoods and forced to attend struggling schools.

Charters have given them an option to go elsewhere, bypassing traditional public schools.

With more than 650 charter schools, Florida’s charters now represent about 16 percent of all public schools in the state – the second highest percentage in the country, according to 2015-16 data from the U.S. Department of Education.

Only Arizona has a larger share of charters among its public schools, about 24 percent (Washington, D.C.’s district has the highest share, about 49 percent.)

The Integrity Florida report released today notes that many charter schools are high-performing, though “research has found no significant difference in academic performance between charter schools and traditional public schools.”

Overall in Florida, the for-profit charters coupled with nonprofit-run charter schools have dramatically changed the landscape in public education, pitting charters against traditional schools and straining traditional schools and districts financially, the Integrity Florida report states.

But the charters “largely failed to deliver the education innovation that was originally promised and envisioned,” and hundreds have closed since the mid to late 1990s, when Florida launched the public, non-traditional schools that would be freed from bureaucracy and run by private groups.

But, “lax regulation of charter schools has created opportunities for financial mismanagement and criminal corruption,” the report states, with some charter operators accused of wrongdoing, including financial improprieties.

Similar incidences have occurred in traditional public schools as well, based on news accounts across the country.

The Integrity Florida analysis, called “The Hidden Costs of Charter School Choice; Privatizing Pubic Education in Florida,” also looked closely at Leon County schools in the state capital, a microcosm of the experiences with charters across Florida.

“When you look at the (charter) schools……They look more like private schools, and so, what we think is really happening here, is that these schools that should be private schools are accessing public funds,” said Integrity Florida’s research director Ben Wilcox, at a news conference today.

“They are giving parent and students more choices,” he added, “but that choice comes at a cost. And I don’t think our taxpayers in Florida are aware of what they are being asked to spend their education resources on.”

The Integrity Florida report notes that the boom in charters may lead to an issue with Florida’s Constitution, which requires a “uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education…”

But, “As the number of charters has grown, with different rules than in traditional schools, some question whether a uniform system actually exists today,” the report says.

Integrity Florida outlined some policy options that lawmakers might consider on overseeing Florida’s charter schools.

One recommendation is to “require for-profit companies associated with charter schools to report their expenditures and profits for each school they operate.” And another suggestion is that “companies managing charter schools in more than one school district should have annual audits ensuring local tax revenue is being spent locally.”

Diane Rado
Diane Rado has covered state and local government and public schools in six states over some 30 years, focusing on policy and investigative stories as well as legislative and political reporting. She spent most of her career at the St. Petersburg (Tampa Bay) Times and the Chicago Tribune. She has a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and did a fellowship in education reform at the University of Michigan in 1999-2000. She is married to a journalist and has three adult children.

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